Barbie Made Me Feel Like an Outcast as a Child—but the New Gender-Neutral Doll Will Change That for Others

On Wednesday, the company behind Barbie, Mattel, announced the launch of a new line of gender-neutral dolls. When I read the headlines, my first thought was that those dolls would have completely transformed my childhood. But then I let out a sigh of relief for all of the children coming up in the world now, in hopes that they might have one less moment of discomfort because they don’t fit the binary gender mold.

The new dolls, which are available in a range of skin tones, come with short hair and long hair options as well as various clothes, shoes, and accessories that are both female- and male-presenting, according to Mattel's press release. A promotion video says the line, which is called Creatable World, is designed to "to keep labels out and invite everyone in."

The release states that the company worked with experts, parents, doctors, and, of course, kids to create the dolls. "Through research, we heard that kids don’t want their toys dictated by gender norms," Kim Culmone, senior vice president of Mattel fashion doll design, said in the release. 

"Toys are a reflection of culture and as the world continues to celebrate the positive impact of inclusivity, we felt it was time to create a doll line free of labels," Culmone added.

This is a major step toward changing the way children see gender norms. I only wish it would have happened sooner. 

I was once a little girl who wanted to wear boy’s clothes. I was the only girl on an all-boys soccer team. I liked to play sports and ride my bike and climb trees. I always had skinned knees and dirt under my fingernails.

I’m not transgender, and I didn’t wish I was a boy. I was just never a feminine girl.

As a kid, when my mother would take me shopping, I would drag her across the store to the boy’s section to pick out clothes. At 13, my mom insisted I wear a dress to my bat-mitzvah, but I refused to go shopping for it—she had to buy it without me. I later cried in the salon chair when I saw my finished haircut for the big Jewish coming of age event. It was a feminine cut, my hair coiffed and sloping under my chin. I hated it. 

Despite my aversion to femininity, I had plenty of Barbie dolls growing up. I felt like Barbie was supposed to represent the adult that I could one day become. But she didn’t feel right. Or rather, I didn’t feel right looking at her. Holding myself to the standard of skinny and feminine was something I knew I could never do.

Barbie was the reason I experienced one of my first moments of loneliness as a person whose gender expression doesn’t match societal standards. Seeing her high heels, gemstone pink dresses, and long, crimped hair made me feel like there was something wrong with me. I couldn’t relate to Ken either. While I liked his laid-back style, I knew I wasn’t a boy.

The feeling of not belonging that my Barbie dolls evoked in me is something I'll always carry. I feel it when I walk into a party and am the only woman wearing a man’s suit and tie. I feel it when I head into a meeting at work as the only woman with short hair and men’s shoes. I feel it when I get looks in the women’s bathroom because other women are not quite sure I belong there.

But that isolation has never scared me from embracing who I am, even as a kid. When I was nine, I stripped my Barbies of their glittery dresses and flowery accessories and swapped them for Ken’s button-downs and khakis. I grabbed a pair of scissors and chopped off their hair, sweeping the blonde locks into the trash. I shed Barbie of her hyper-feminine identity, and I felt instantly better.

Barbie could be female, but she didn’t have to be feminine. I now see that by helping my dolls find their place in the world, I was finding my own.

So yes, Mattel, it is time to "create a doll line free of labels." In fact, it's been time for as long as I can remember. 

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