October 29, 2009

Anything She Wanted

I was born on October 1, 1960. Barbara Millicent Roberts – better known to billions as, merely, "Barbie" – was born on March 9, 1959. Although little more than eighteen months separate us, she emerged – like Athena from the forehead of Zeus – fully grown, and I have spent my entire life trying to catch up. When I was learning to walk, she was tripping the light fantastic in color-coordinated pumps and strappy sandals. When I was dealing with pimples and adolescent angst, she smiled, clear-skinned and unconcerned. You might say that when I married, at thirty-eight, I finally lapped her, since she, despite a long and sometimes turbulent relationship with Ken, has not. But she has far outstripped me on the career track.

I have never been a vet, an actress, a teacher, a model or a flight attendant. I have never been a member of any of the armed services, let alone all four of them. (I’m not entirely sure she hasn’t served in other countries, as well.) I have not been a lawyer, though I considered it for a while in college. ("You’re too sensitive to be a lawyer/social worker/actress," my father said.) I was not athletic enough to be a circus star, a ballerina, an Olympic skater. I will never go to space. I have never run for president.

October 28, 2009

By Any Other Name

I wasn’t always Barbara. The name was too grown-up for a baby, my parents and siblings thought, and so they called me Susie.

I was perfectly happy being Susie. Until I started kindergarten, where the teacher said that my real name was Barbara. "In school," she said, "we use real names." Right off the bat I was a stranger to myself, answering to a name that, while technically mine, I had never claimed, and it was in was in kindergarten that I learned that Barbara means "stranger."

I remember sitting cross-legged on the floor, my folded hands pressing my dress into the hollow of my lap like a good girl, as the teacher told us the meaning of our names: "Stranger" didn’t sound too bad, but something changed when she told the class that Barbara also means "barbarian." Although I was surrounded by other children, it felt as if I were suddenly alone, as if everyone else had moved back and left me in the middle of a large open space ringed by laughing, pointing faces. These were the same kids who ate paste and couldn’t be trusted with pointy scissors, and yet their laughter made me feel that I was, in fact, a stranger and outsider. As if not even following all the rules would protect me from being different. It was too late, I thought, to go back to being Susie. I would have to be Barbara for the rest of my life.

October 27, 2009

Don't Call Me Barbie

Don’t call me Barbie.

Of all the permutations of Barbara, it’s the one name I will not answer to. Call me Barb if you must, though if we don’t know each other well, I would prefer that you didn’t. I might respond to Babs—if it's offered with affection and humor—but I won’t come if you call me Barbie.

A boy whose name I’ve long forgotten called me Barbie on the playground one morning.

"Barbie, Barbie, Barbie, Barbara is a Barbie doll."

"Shut up! Don’t call me that, shut up."

He danced around me, just out of reach, singing, "Barbie, Barbie, Barbie." I stomped my foot. Shut up, shut up, shut up. He laughed and ran away when, fueled by a humiliated rage that scorched my memory, I charged at him, too young to realize that my violent response was fuel for his teasing—and that I was drawing more attention to myself by attempting to silence him.

I didn’t have the words in second grade to explain this terrible transgression to the teacher who asked what the boy had done. Gulping through shameful tears, I told her that he had called me Barbie.