Sunday, November 23, 1997
What really sent Barbie
to a body shop?


BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

This has been a very busy week for Celebrity Barbie. Letterman, Leno, Rosie, Oprah. Not to mention Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw, Katie Couric, Dan Rather and newspapers all over the country.

She has a new look. ''Her profile will be less graduated,'' says Jean McKenzie, who is in charge of Mattel's Barbie division. I think this is toy talk for breast reduction surgery. She is also getting a nose job. I hope no one tries to slip these procedures past Managed Care Barbie.

Kid stuff

The new doll, to begin making appearances at Pepto Bismol Pink Barbie counters in January, will have a wider waist, slimmer hips and a smaller bust. Her hair will be straighter and softer, her nose sculpted and her smile more enigmatic.

Somebody - probably a scientist or performance artist funded by the federal government - has translated the current Barbie's measurements into 38-18-34 proportions. Unrealistic but probably most little girls haven't done that math. In fact, I don't think children take Barbie nearly as seriously as grown-ups do.

Betty Friedan has called her a ''vacuous blonde.'' New York Newsday columnist M.G. Lord, who wrote the definitive unauthorized biography, Forever Barbie, insists that she was modeled after a German hooker.

Barbie was born full grown in 1959 and named after the daughter of Ruth and Elliot Handler, the founders of Mattel. The official Barbie Trivia Page on the Internet notes that her full name is Barbie Millicent Roberts from Willows, Wisc. A graduate of Willows High School, she has been dating the seriously abridged Ken since 1961.

None of us suspects that they have Gone All the Way. Or that they are secretly married. Barbie is just not the type. In the doll's early years, Ms. Handler spurned a manufacturer's offer to make a Barbie-sized vacuum cleaner because Barbie didn't do ''rough housework.'' Barbie also doesn't bowl.

A San Francisco store last year offered up the Anti-Barbie line, including Trailer Trash Barbie with a cigarette dangling from her mouth and dark roots in her platinum blonde hair. At first, Mattel shrugged: ''We're a very diverse society. Barbie respects that.'' The company later sued.

Moneybags Barbie

A lot of money is at stake. Barbie is worth $2 billion a year to Mattel. This is for new dolls and accessories. Vintage dolls and their steamer trunks full of real furs and satin are hawked at shows all over the world.

Jackie Mills is an international Barbie dealer, just back from a buying trip to Holland. OK. The Covington man is a hairdresser at Saks, and this is more or less a hobby that allows him to travel. But he has met people who have ''put their children through college and live in nice houses buying and selling Barbies.''

The early dolls, he says, go for as much as $10,000. A Barbie with a solid torso who looks like Natasha in the old Bullwinkle shows is worth a fortune. At the show in Holland, there were 900 people from all over the world, all trying to deal with their own currency.

Lots of talk in many different languages, but none of it about Barbie's social implications, he says. What about Barbie as a serious feminist issue? What about all those bulimic teen-agers? Isn't Big-Breasted Barbie to blame for silicon implants?

''It's just a doll,'' he says gently.

My friend Jan agrees. A teacher and expert on childhood development, she also has reared a daughter who played with a Barbie doll or six during her formative years.

''She didn't grow up to be a little blonde floozy,'' her mother reports. ''So I don't think there was any residual damage.''

Jackie says Porky Barbie is simply a ploy by Mattel to get media attention right before the Christmas shopping season. Those poor corporate saps. We are much too smart to fall for that.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.

PULFER ARCHIVE