Teenage Mutant Ninja Barbie
It was a few days before students arrived in September. I was teaching at Kennebecasis Valley High and the student population was approaching 1900. I looked at my homeroom class list and recognized a name. Tracy was in my homeroom the previous year (Chem 11) and was now enrolled in my period 1 Biology class. I was really pleased to see her name as she was one of those ideal students – personable, cooperative, academically talented, respectful, etc. She had a good sense of humour. She was also a competitive figure skater. Teaching would be so much easier if classes were filled with Tracy-like students.
On opening day I was in my homeroom greeting my new class. Tracy arrived and greeted me with her beautiful smile. It was nice to see her again but it was obvious that she had lost a lot of weight over the summer. Now I would not have described her as having been overweight, not at all. She was a competitive skater and, if anything, was well-muscled. She told me that she was still skating. I assumed that she had been training hard over the summer. I didn’t think about it again.
Several weeks into the semester I received a phone call at home from Tracy’s mother. She wanted me to know why Tracy had missed the previous two Wednesday classes.
I said, “But you sent in notes saying that she had appointments. That’s all I need – you don’t have to go into any detail. She certainly gets caught up in record time.”
“She wanted me to call and explain exactly what is going on, and that she is going to be missing a number of Wednesdays to come. She has been diagnosed with anorexic nervosa. Wednesday morning is when she is scheduled to meet with her therapist.”
I was at a loss. I suddenly realized that I knew so little about Tracy’s diagnosis. My only experience with anorexia was watching The Karen Carpenter Story, and I didn’t remember much of that. Here was a student of mine in a crisis and I had no idea what to say. My only response was, “What can I do?”
Now I could go into a lot of detail as to what transpired during the weeks and years that followed. I made it my quest to learn as much as I could about eating disorders. Tracy shared with me all of her resources and we talked often during her recovery. I later teamed up with another teacher who, herself, was a coping anorexic, and for a number of years we presented to teachers during professional development days. I even coordinated the development of a brochure on eating disorders that was distributed to schools and doctors’ offices. These are stories for another time.
One of the causes of eating disorders is the unfair and unrealistic expectations western society places on body image, particularly that of women. As I came to understand the nature of these disorders I realized that my own children were subject to those same messages. I decided to be proactive within my own home.
My son was a big fan of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. We would often team up and play Turtles together, fighting evil forces and making the world a better place. It represented quality time together.
At the same time, my daughter would often ask me to play Barbies with her. I have to admit that I enjoyed Barbies far less than Turtles, but how could I say ‘no’? We spent more time accessorizing and braiding hair than we did fighting evil forces.
As we played Barbie together it suddenly occurred to me that Barbie herself was part of that message. Mattel, is its attempt to portray what western society deemed as being beautiful in women, had created a rather hideous and pathetic character. Just look at the waist size in comparison to the bust size and the proportions of the long legs and neck with respect to the rest of the body. Barbie could, in fact, be considered a mutant.
I sat down with my daughter and talked about this. I didn’t want her to emulate this doll and aspire to achieve its perceived beauty. I pointed out the disproportions. I explained that if she were sitting beside a real-life Barbie on the school bus and the driver had to stop suddenly, Barbie’s over-sized head would probably snap off of her skinny neck and go rolling toward the front of the bus. From that day onward, I refused to play Barbies unless she called them Mutant-Barbies. That expression became the norm.
As I mentioned earlier, I really didn’t enjoy playing with her dolls but it represented quality time together. Occasionally, my childhood G.I. Joe would come over for a visit (purely platonic) and show off his weaponry; however, on most occasions it was pure Mutant-Barbie time.
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