All kids have a friend their parents don't approve of. Mine had long blond hair and a pony. I admired her from afar. I wanted to play with her, dress like her, but my parents hated her. A bad influence they said. She's too grown up. They wouldn't have her in the house. Her name was Barbie.
When I asked them why? They looked up from their lentil soup and shuffled their sandal-clad feet as they reconciled how to explain objectification before they'd explained sex. "Just because," came the answer.
Despite my parents' disapproval, Barbie and I were destined to be friends. I used my pocket money to buy a shaven-headed, one-legged Barbie and a bag of old clothes from a jumble sale. I built her houses of cardboard, customised her clothes, did her makeup with felt-tip pens and invented endless scenarios and characters for her. Barbie was the pivot around which much creativity spun. But like many childhood friendships, time passed and we grew apart. She took the path to the attic and I grew up.
Now I'm a parent and my four-year-old daughter is counting down the days until Christmas.
"What are you hoping for?" I asked her.
"A Barbie," she said.
Like the school friend who pops up on Facebook after 30 years, Barbie is banging on the door to come back into my life. Only this time, I'm not so sure I want her.
In many ways, she's just the same. While I've aged and squeezed out two kids, she has remained blond and slim and bright eyed. The girl in me can still see the appeal – the glossy hair, the sparkly outfits, the glamour. You don't see the sexualisation as a child. You just see a doll and pretty things. I get why my daughter wants her, but now I get why my parents didn't – the unachievable body ideal, the dumb, passive face, the feet on permanent tiptoes.
But I played with Barbie – and I never became a pole dancer. What's the harm? I look around and everyone else seems to have invited Barbie into their children's toy chests without a pang of guilt.
I call a friend to discuss. She reminds me of the Saturday afternoons we spent crying with laughter playing The Price is Right with our Barbies. Her Ken doll was Leslie Crowther. My shaven-headed Barbie was a squealing contestant. We conclude that Barbie, in essence is OK. She can be a springboard for play. My daughter can have one, I decide.
I go to John Lewis to buy one, only to discover that Barbie has subtly changed while we've been apart. Every doll is wearing pink, every trim is sparkly, every skirt is obscenely short, every pair of shoes disablingly high. Maybe I'm wrong but I remember Barbie having jobs, wearing a range of clothes and colours. You could get a riding outfit that looked like the real thing – beige jodhpurs, flat black riding boots. Now horse-riding Barbie wears a pink glittery jacket over pink jodhpurs so fleshy in colour that you could be mistaken for thinking she's mounted her horse with no trousers (or knickers) at all. I thought Barbie was meant to be about childhood?
I go to an independent department store hoping to find a more sensible Barbie. All I find are Barbie princesses and fairies.
That night I ask my daughter what she wants to be when she grows up. "A princess," she replies. I explain that just sitting in a nice dress all day is very boring. I tell her she could be a princess who goes out to work. "I'll be a princess firefighter," she says.
While she's sleeping, I search online for a Barbie with a job. To my delight, I find the "I Can Be a …" range. I find that Barbie still has a multitude of jobs. She "can be" a doctor, a nurse, a vet, a palaeontologist, a teacher, a magician assistant, an astronaut … but only if she wears pink, high heels and a teeny-tiny short skirt again.
But what's wrong with that? Shouldn't a doctor be able to wear a miniskirt to work without judgment? If a vet wants to treat ill dogs in a low-cut glittery blouse that's her choice. But that's the problem. Barbie has no choice. Somehow she's become trapped on the set of The Only Way is Essex, shackled in a world of pink.
Eventually, I find the most innocuously dressed Barbie I can, the one that most resembles the Barbie that was my childhood friend. The "I Can Be … " an architect Barbie. She's not wearing pink. She's got glasses and a skirt that reaches her knees. She actually looks as if she's going to an office to do more than just satisfy the male gaze. I order her. Then I decide she will need some clothes. What fun is a doll without a change of clothes? It's all about inventing the scenarios, allowing her to be something other than an architect for the day. I pick out a set of emergency services clothes – a firefighter and a police officer. Barbie can be that princess/firefighter we'd talked about. My son is wild about rescue games – they can play together. Barbie can be kick-ass and heroic.
Then the outfits arrive and I'm horrified. If your house was on fire would you want to be rescued (in anything other than a sexual fantasy) by a woman in nine-inch high silver platforms, sparkly blue trousers and a PVC skin-tight red jacket vaguely resembling something fireproof? Oh, and a jaunty little firefighter's hat? And the police officer who turns up to investigate the fire is in a skin-tight sparkly pencil skirt and a low-cut blouse. That's Barbie at work.
But what does this say to kids? "I can be," but only if I dress like a firefighter-cum-stripper? What does this say to my son? His sister can play his rescue games with her sub-standard doll who can't run when the burning building falls because of her platforms? The uniform for Barbie is pink. She can't have the real thing because she's a girl. She "can be" anything, so long as she wears bum-baring, tit-tastic pink clothes. Where's the choice in that?
So I return the Barbie clothes and I cancel the order for the architect doll. Barbie and I have just fallen out. Big time.
It's time to find a new best friend. And like the fickleness of playground fall-outs, I've found one fast. Lottie. She's a Barbie but without the bullet boobs and cinched waist. Launched in 2012 by Arklu toys, Lottie has a body based on an average nine-year-old girl. She doesn't wear makeup, high heels or jewellery, but she does have long glossy hair to style. Her shoes aren't cripplingly high and she can stand up by herself. She's got clothes and accessories – some are pink, some aren't. This girl's got choices. There's a princessy Lottie and a ballerina. But Lottie is also a pirate queen, a lighthouse keeper and a geeky robot girl – all inspired by real women such as computer programmer Ada Lovelace and lighthouse keeper Grace Darling, neither of which had to wear a pink uniform.
My daughter's face may fall when she rips off the Christmas paper expecting to see Barbie smiling back at her, but maybe one day, like me, she will realise that Lottie makes for a far better friend.