I imagine being handed a disabled Barbie as a child, one with a removable leg, a shapeshifting body, a complicated body. Would it have saved me from decades of self-loathing and body hatred?
Like many young girls, I played with Barbies. In the mid-’80s, I was the proud owner of the Barbie Dream House with its yellow plastic elevator that shuffled those ridiculously skinny blonds (and Skipper, the “sporty” Barbie), from floor to floor, occasionally to collect Ken’s rent for the top floor condo. I also had the “Darcy,” Barbie, who was meant to represent “taller” girls. But that’s where the diversity ended.
Barbies have evolved over the years to reflect the multicultural nation that we have always been, but that I didn’t directly encounter until I started college. I grew up in a rural, all-white, all-Christian, pre-internet universe. I was the only girl with a disability; the only non-white person I knew was the pen pal I wrote to in Ghana. I would have been thrilled to see Barbies that didn’t look as interchangeable as border collies. But this was the ’80s: Blond was the ultimate standard of beauty, and it helped to be thin, too. Barbie painfully reinforced all of this with her weird little waist and spidery legs.
Part of my early fascination with the dolls was, in fact, with the artificiality of their bodies: the forever-pointed toes, the arms and legs that smelled of plastic, the straight-legged way of walking, the stiff movements: I was constantly reminded of the prosthetist’s office, where legs often hung from straps on the ceiling, and I was accustomed to seeing sculpted feet that had no toes, or calves and thighs with no definition or muscle.
Mattel, in keeping with the culture’s demand that we recognize and champion women who have literally changed the world (a worthy impulse), even if they don’t fit the prevailing beauty standard that the company helped solidify, launched a Frida Kahlo doll as part of an “Inspiring Women” series that includes Amelia Earhart and Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician who inspired the movie Hidden Figures.
At first, I was thrilled! A disabled Barbie? This was progress! But just as I thought I might run to the nearest Target or Toys ‘R Us (before the latter goes out of business), to scoop her up for my 4-year-old daughter, who calls my prosthesis “leggy,” likes to help me attach it in the morning, and sits with one leg out when we sit cross-legged in a kind of toddler solidarity that is so sweet it often makes me tear up, I realized after a quick Google search that this doll is no different. It’s the blond Barbie of my childhood masquerading as the influential Mexican artist.
Frida’s image is ubiquitous in our culture, to a fetishizing degree: you can buy Frida Kahlo socks, magnets, tote bags printed with her image, coasters, greeting cards, posters, holiday ornaments, and any number of plastic souvenir items. I wonder how many people who own these objects know about her groundbreaking work as an artist; as a feminist, bi-sexual, politically active woman; and especially as a woman with a disability. This last fact defined her life and art in myriad ways, but ones that critics often misunderstand, citing pain as the artistic motor, when pain offers no such energy; citing Diego’s rejection of her as the source of her angst, when she also took her own lovers. People love to talk about her body, but they don’t really want to see it. It reminds me of the time I asked a prosthetist why there were no pictures of women amputee Paralympians on the walls when photos of men were abundant. “Oh, nobody wants to see those bodies,” he stated, and then trotted away with my leg to make an adjustment. Exactly.
Of course Mattel’s Frida has no unibrow. Of course they made Barbie Frida impossibly thin like her compatriot dolls (early sketches of Frida show strong, muscular legs not unlike those of a gymnast or cyclist). And of course they ignored her disability. Frida wore corsets to support her spine after it was crushed in an accident. Her left leg was amputated as an adult and she wore an artificial limb until her death. This last unsurprising yet disappointing omission feels a bit like being slapped in the face, or a bit how I felt as a child with not a single body that reflected my own. My body was its own universe, and it was certainly one that I worked to—and was encouraged to—hide.
The Casa Azul, the Mexico City residence Frida shared with Diego Rivera that is now a museum, recently displayed Frida’s corsets and legs. When I walked into the room I worked to catch my breath. Although only her most intimate acquaintances saw these – Diego, her lovers, perhaps her close friends – these were some of the most remarkable objects I’ve ever seen. An artificial foot was painted red and winged like a phoenix. The corsets were gold and blue and red and embroidered in flowers and gold thread. The parts of her body beloved by virtue of the care and artistry of their construction sat behind glass, both impossibly beautiful and entirely bereft. Although hidden from the casual observer they were also designed to be seen and admired, but only when the wearer chose the moment. This, to me, was an expression of power and empowerment. Part of me wanted to shield my eyes – was it right to see them? – and another part of me wanted to break the glass and hold them close.
I imagine being handed a disabled Barbie as a child, one with a removable leg, a shapeshifting body, a complicated body. Would it have saved me from decades of self-loathing and body hatred? Maybe. Would it have helped the many other girls with disabilities who never see their likenesses appreciated or even acknowledged in public? Unfortunately, we’ll never know. The message is clear: Slink back into the shadows, and if you’re going to show your body, only show your face.
Role Reboot regular contributor, Emily Rapp Black, is an Assistant Professor in the MFA Program at the University of California-Riverside and the author, most recently, of The Still Point of the Turning World.