The neighbors are going to think I’m a pervert.
Well, more of a pervert. A worse pervert. Not just a homosexual, but a naked-doll voyeur too.
In my defense, I needed to keep the blinds open. I had only used my Canon camera a total of six times, but I still knew that I had to have decent lighting to take good photos. The last photos I had taken of the dolls looked like a hostage situation—dark lighting, a shaky iPhone, and someone off-camera telling them to stick to the script. I needed natural lighting. I needed a white backdrop rigged over two chairs. I needed it to pop.
I needed professional help, probably.
My girlfriend watched from the couch with concern growing in her eyes. “Do they have to be—naked, like that?”
I propped the naked vintage Barbie up against my makeshift background, brushing her hair out of her eyes. It didn’t help that her plastic eyes were caked in sultry blue makeup, her lips always formed into a coral-colored pout. She looked a little too comfortable naked. She looked ready to pose. “Yes, the people on eBay will want to see all of their product. Back, front, all of it.”
My girlfriend sniffed. Somehow, she was on the Barbie’s side. She would pack-bond with a toaster if given the chance—that’s how tender-hearted she is. Glass jars, ragged stuffed animals, and stray cats all existed to be polished, adopted, named and afforded a place in the family.
“It just seems weird, that’s all,” she said as I flipped the Barbie over to take a close-up shot of her butt. There was a serial number stamped on it that was probably important.
“Gotta give the people what they want,” I said. And then I bent the Barbie’s rubber legs and sat her coyly on the edge of the chair, her plastic tits thrust forward, forever shapely, gleaming in the mid-afternoon light.
I know way too much about Barbies now. I had to research them, to figure out which Barbies I was selling.
Barbie has a best friend; did you know? Her name is Midge. Midge sprang into existence merely to prove that Barbie wasn’t a sex symbol. Which is odd, considering that she and Barbie share a body—the exact same impossible measurements and D-cups, all so they can use the same toys and accessories. Barbies creators must have reasoned that Barbie needed a practical best friend, so Midge sprung forth, with her freckles, fuller face, and more practical clothing line. Even her name suggested a goody-two-shoes vibe, the sort of friend who would catch you drinking under the bleachers and tell on you, for-your-own-good, of course.
How lazy, I thought, for the company to make them share a body mold. How unglamorous, to be the dowdy copy of your best friend, Barbie. Did Midge resent Barbie, with her perfect high heels and studly boyfriend? Was it hard to exist only to prove someone else’s virtue?
Or did Midge and Barbie ever cut loose, get a little too drunk on college hooch? Did they strip down to their barest selves—ready to be known, to be a little dangerous for the night—only to discover the other’s body was a perfect copy? A homecoming, a familiarity, a new world well-known?
Barbie’s had too many jobs too quickly. In an interview, she would have to say phrases like “multi-talented” and “diverse skill-sets” to make up for her appalling track record. A new job in a new field every year? Please. She’s a flight risk, a nightmare case of high turnover. And who’s footing her ten-million-dollar student loan debt, the Mafia? Has she been stripping for cash on the side to make ends meet?
My mom liked to tell people that I “wasn’t really into Barbies” with a note of superiority in her voice. “She just likes her stuffed animals,” my mother would tell her church friends over the fellowship donuts—as if the sordid lives of underfed plastic supermodels were beneath me. Like many aspects of my pre-teen life, that wasn’t true. I didn’t have many Barbies, so I didn’t play with many Barbies under my mother’s watchful gaze.
My best friend Michelle and her sisters, however, had a battalion of Barbies. Michelle was Catholic so by proxy her Barbies were as well, which means they didn’t believe in birth control and sixteen more of them seemed to spring up overnight. We played with all seventeen hundred of them in her unfinished basement, dressing them in cowgirl hats and wedding gowns and aprons. Barbie could be anything, according to the Barbie website—but this was the nineties, so our Barbies tended to be things like nurses and school teachers. They worked long, thankless hours while Ken sipped cocktails on the plastic pagoda with his fellow surgeon buddies.
Camp counselors don’t like it when you sing the song “Barbie Girl” at church camp. The “you can undress me everywhere” line is suspect. Girls (Barbie included) encouraging other girls to “undress them everywhere” is worrisome in the eyes of the Lord.
It’s really Ken’s salacious call and response that drives the song into the danger zone. First of all, the man singing Ken’s part sounds like a forty-year-old chain smoker wearing a gold chain and a fake tan. His voice is half-rasp, half-sleaze. Secondly, he uses the phrase “hanky-panky” in the song. Half of us campers didn’t know what that phrase meant, but we knew it bothered our counselor. We mouthed it like a secret code word, strutting around and singing in the ninety-degree heat.
Barbie must partially be a sex symbol, Midge or no Midge. Because if she isn’t, they would have made her look more like the average pre-teen girl. Here is Barbie, determined not to wear underwire, despite her itchy, growing chest. She can’t serve the volleyball in gym class. Barbara, be-speckled and be-spotted, who’s dancing to Usher all alone in the corner at the school dance. She would be five-foot-nothing with weird kneecaps and a bowl cut. She would be someone who we recognized.
I was almost as bad as my girlfriend. I was humanizing two lumps of plastic, fixing their hair, straightening their outfits for the second set of photos. I was starting to feel guilty.
“It’s like I’m sending you to boarding school,” I muttered to them wryly, “Just a quick trip in a mail sleeve.”
I might not have sold the vintage Barbies. Three generations of my family had played with them. My grandma had saved them for me in a plastic sleeve along with a strange-looking cowboy and a Mary Poppins doll horrifically missing all her limbs. The vintage Barbies were the money-makers, though, and I was poor and about to drive cross country to graduate school. I tried not to imagine my grandmother rolling over in her grave. If my other Barbies had sold as intended, I wouldn’t have had to sell the vintage ones in the first place.
My aunt from Ohio (ironically named Barb) was my other Barbie supplier. She was possessed by Barbie fever. She had a whole room full of them in her basement, stacked end to end like a bright pink wall. Aunt Barb owned stewardess Barbie, whose glassy blue eyes suggested she was tired of waiting on airline passengers. She even had Wedding Barbie, who looked ready for white picket fences and 2.5 children who mysteriously wouldn’t ruin her waistline.
Every year, my Aunt Barb gave me a Barbie. First came Christmas Barbie with her fluffy white sleeves, then Princess Barbie, then a Barbie with a coy smile dressed in what can only be described as a revealing schoolgirl outfit (the nineties were a strange time).
The only caveat to me receiving the Barbies was that I wasn’t allowed to play with them. Ever.
“They keep their original value if you leave them in the box,” my aunt explained, handing me a Barbie dressed as Rapunzel. “Someday, these are going to be worth a lot of money.”
I think my parents felt bad for me. I must have cut quite a picture—a six-year-old with a nineties mullet, clutching a pink Barbie box for three hours from Eastern Ohio back to Kentucky. I remember tapping the plastic with a sticky finger, hoping the Barbie could breathe in there.
My aunt was wrong about the value, by the way. I sold those Barbies years later, still pristine in their boxes, for $9.99 a piece. It hurt, but honestly? A girl’s gotta eat.
Did you ever have your Barbies make out?
It was an imprecise art. Their little plastic faces clacking together furtively, their arms unable to bend around one another. The weird daring of it, the giggles, the make-sure-the-adults-aren’t around.
Usually, we married Ken and Barbie before they locked lips. We were Bible Belt children, after all. Barbie dressed in her best outfit, a sharp white A-line dress with matching plastic shoes. In the watery summer light from the small windows, we marched them down an aisle made of discarded Christmas decorations, solemn as priests. Michelle’s basement smelled like damp concrete and insulation dust. Her white-blonde hair gathered the sun until it shone like spun gold.
After their nuptials, we ushered Barbie and Ken into their dream house. It was time for whatever adults did after marriage. Kissing, we imagined. Making dinner every night. Uttering sentences that clipped at the end, like the wings of flightless birds. Lying together in bed, their arms never quite flexible enough to fold around one another—their plastic throats closed tight.
Barbie can be anything! Her website cheerfully proclaimed. This past year, 2017, Barbie actually became President. Which was a step up from the previous year, when she was merely a trendy scientist. Maybe we could elect a female president if she had triple D cans and long blonde hair. But probably not; they’d just turn the campaign trail into one drawn-out blonde joke.
Not that she could handle the stress of a Presidential campaign. If Barbie was a real woman, her neck would be long and thin—too brittle for her to lift her head up. She couldn’t drink any of Ken’s cocktails—she would only have room for half a liver in her sixteen-inch waist. Her wrists would be as brittle as bird bones. Her ankles would be like dry kindling, ready to snap. She would have to walk on all fours because her slim legs couldn’t support her. She’d have to keep her head bowed—penitent.
She could be anything she wanted, as long as she didn’t mind crawling.
The sharp winter light was fading. I hurried to catch the last of it with my poorly-pointed lens. I undressed the vintage Barbies one more time and carried them to the sink, one in each hand. The rubber of their legs was marred with dirt—I noticed it while I was taking close-ups.
It’s not surprising they were so battered. My mother played with them as a child, and then me, and then my little sister. As I started to run the tap, letting the water warm up, an image of my mother holding the Barbies as a child entered my mind. She was a tow-headed thing, long-faced and serious and full of practical English blood. She looked wistful, in my head. She had wanted ten more siblings; she had wanted a lot of things.
I dipped the two Barbies feet-first in a steel bowl full of lemon-scented suds. Scrubbing with the rough edge of the sponge, I stripped away years of grubby fingers and drool. I thought of my mother, washing my 2-month-old self in a plastic tub, taking care with my tender neck and heavy head.
Things got more complicated since then, didn’t they? I fell in love with a girl whose name my mother never says. I learned to play with Barbies. I pressed their little faces together in a Catholic girl’s basement, making Barbie and Midge kiss. Knowing it was important that I never let anyone see.