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Celebrating imaginative play with Barbie's 55th Birthday

Celebrating imaginative play with Barbie's 55th Birthday
The root of all goodness in raising a young child, in molding their positive mental process would be the input and the time spent by parents with their children.
KUALA LUMPUR: When one adult mentions Barbie (yes Barbie the doll) to another, one would receive a mixed reaction and expression. For example, some would smile and reminisce the good and beautiful early years or life called childhood and some would cringe and debate on the roles Barbie play and the superficial kind of image Barbie exude to children.

To whatever the reaction and principle one has towards Barbie, this 11.5 inches tall plastic doll has withstood the pressures and embraces the bliss of its existence for the past 55 years.

For more than five decades of its creation, Barbie has partnered with more than 100 people including cultural icons, designers, seamstress and stylists and believe it or not, Barbie has had 150 careers under her pink belt!

Through these many careers, her ever changing and ever classy iconic style, her family, pets and friends, Barbie has created an outlet for girls (and boys) a safe, open-ended way to play and create inventive and inspiring storylines.

In honour of its 55th anniversary, let’s celebrate the boundless opportunities that imaginative play brings to every child all around the globe.

Click here for some Barbie fun facts!

Barbara Milicent Roberts

The Barbie doll was invented in 1959 by the co-founder of Mattel, Ruth Handler. Named after Ruth’s daughter, Barbara, Barbie was introduced to the world at the American Toy Fair in New York City.
Ken, the male doll was named after Ruth’s son and was internationally introduced as a couple a few years later, in 1961.

Inspired by a German doll called Bild Lilli in early 1955, this American businesswoman successfully made Barbie the figurehead of dolls produced by Mattel. It has since been an important part of the toy fashion doll market for over fifty years.

Bild Lilli
Bild Lilli
Barbie came in a pink box as either brunette or blond and later in 1961 red haired Barbie appeared. In 1980, the first African Barbie and Hispanic Barbie were introduced. In 1969, Christie was introduced. Christie O’neil was Barbie’s first African-American friend.

Barbie has had good fashion sense until today. The first Barbie wore a black and white striped strapless jersey swimsuit and was sold for only USD3. Additional clothing was widely sold costing from USD1 to USD5. All designs for clothing were based on the latest runway trends from Paris.

Despite her success, Barbie also shares her piece of pie of numerous controversies and lawsuits, often involving parody of the doll and her lifestyle.

Aside from inspiring young girls, Barbie too drives them up the wall by constantly losing one shoe. And accordingly, since its very humble beginning, to a full-blown woman (and man) Barbie has been causing drama like the blonde beauty she is. There have been perpetual beefs about her totally inhuman body proportions, predicament of whether Barbie plays a good role model and even her status with Ken!

Original barbie
The Original Barbie

The common controversy over Barbie doll was when it was realized that if Barbie was a real person her measurements would be an impossible 36-18-38. However, it failed to see that Barbie doll is just a doll.

Parents constantly have debates on the type of role model that a Barbie doll play in their children’s life. Some parents even banned from having a Barbie doll in their house.

According to an expert psychologist, Woo Pei Jun who is also Senior Lecturer in Sunway University and experienced in child development, these debates are really an adult input rather than a child’s perception.

“Children don’t really have an adult perception on them actually. I think the perception of the dolls is too skinny, they are not ideal, it is more of an adult input into them... and kids being kids, they are very naïve, very genuine, and all they want to do is just to play”

The most current controversy was when Barbie was featured on the Sports Illustration cover with caption “The Doll that Started it All”.

Featured alongside supermodels like Christie Brinkley and Brooklyn Decker, this February 2014 issue has put Barbie in great scrutiny.

The debates over whether Barbie is actually a beloved plaything or a portrayal of an unrealistic standard of beauty has not seen the end of it for decades until today.

Barbie Sports Illustration Cover
Unleashing the boundless imagination of a child

Criticisms will not cease anytime soon. On a more positive note, we can’t deny the fact that dolls in general, be it a Barbie doll or a rag doll, gives the boundless imagination and creative play to little girls (especially) which is priceless to her childhood and to her process of growing up.

Mattel believes in creating the future of play. According to its Southeast Asia’s Commercial Director, Petrina Kho, huge investments have been put into the innovation of Barbie doll and friends, just so to make sure that the dolls are user friendly to kids.

Petrina also said that, “The ultimate goal is really to ensure that parents use toys or dolls as an enabler, in terms of teaching value to kids”

Mattel sees Barbie as a tool of endless aspiration, hence creating a world of possibilities in the imagination of young children especially pre-schoolers.

Little girl playing

So how did Barbie doll stay relevant throughout all these years?

Petrina answered, “1959 was the first Barbie and it was sold at 3 dollars. So imagine the time it has gone through in the last 55 years until it is today and the reason why Barbie is so popular and relevant across these 55 years is mainly because she constantly re-invents herself and stay relevant according to the culture.”

The effort Mattel puts in into making Barbie the household choice is applaudable because the list of products and what Barbie can do to a child’s imagination is endless.

From a simple and plain swimsuit Barbie in 1959, Barbie got her first bendable legs and eyes that can open and shut in 1965. Twist n Turn Barbie with (obviously) moveable body that twisted at the waist was then released in 1967.

Realising the fact that most girls love playing with their tresses and that hair is a girl’s crowning glory, Mattel offered a doll with hair that falls down from her head to her toes. The Totally Hair Barbie released in 1992 made it to the highest rank as the best-selling Barbie doll ever.

The Totally Hair Barbie
And today, a child can find a Barbie with pet dog or cat that can actually do things real animals can do like past motion or poop!

Barbie’s doll house, car, hair salon, garden and countless other objects were created by Mattel just so children can learn real life responsibilities as well as problem solving according to their very own imagination.

Barbie Potty Training Taffy

Is Barbie losing her edge?

The birth of gadgets like portable video games, tablets, game consoles, laptops and even smart phones is said to bring down the excitement over dolls and other traditional toys amongst children today.

While Barbie might seem to not grow old with time, however, this iconic plaything may be feeling her age.

Like any other toy maker in this play industry, Mattel is battling for parents’ often limited budget in a lukewarm state of current economy and has been forced to be on the lookout for competition from video games for its young customers’ attention.

The Daily News America, recently reported that toymaker, Mattel posted its first loss in five years from 2009 as sales of the iconic doll brand stumbled gruffly.

In America, this blonde bombshell’s sales for the first-quarter on 2014 slumped 14% and the company’s worldwide sales fell 5% to USD946.2 million and the toy giant reported a net loss of USD11million.

However, according to Petrina, this is not so in Malaysia and even in the Southeast Asia region where Mattel Southeast Asia has grew 11% in 2013 from the previous year.

“In Malaysia and in Southeast Asia for the year 2013, Barbie grew double digit in terms of sales, and it is really about staying relevant and what children and parents need…internet and technology is here to stay, clearly that is a revolution in time, it is a very important tool for our lifestyle today”

So,  what is the better toy for young children?

According to Woo, traditional toys like dolls and blocks are actually considered better toys to play. And the reason being would be the fact that these traditional toys give children a lot of opportunities to problem solving, to thinking and to creating all sorts storyline and things that are just fun according to their fresh imagination.

The list of things that children can learn subconciously from these imagination are fairly extensive.

“Toys like gadgets and tablets, they are usual programmes and they have sounds and all sorts of fantastic things, lights and sounds. What happens then and with those kinds of gadgets, children become passive receiver, they are not active thinkers and that’s the danger”

Having said that, Woo said, like anything else there must be a balance in everything. Too much or too little of a particular thing can pose ‘danger’ in the growth of a child.

“With gadgets, you can’t learn that rules of personal space, about jokes, about being nice, there’s some limits with the gadgets and the applications in the gadgets but I think it is the balance that needs to be strike”

Most importantly, according to Woo, good parenting is not all about the choices to what kind of toys to buy for children. The root of all goodness in raising a young child, in molding their positive mental process would be the input and the time spent by parents with their children.

kids computer

Without guidance and personal loving attention by either a mother or a father towards a child who is playing on his or her own, any form of traditional toy could be detrimental to a child’s well being as much as modern toys or even television could.

“I think it is just not from Barbie doll, children watch TV images, magazines, or some children will see cartoons, and that’s the same thing they will say too… like ‘I wanna be like Cubby from Jake and the Neverland Pirates, he’s so chubby, he’s so cute, he’s so funny or I wanna brown hair like the princess or long hair like Little Mermaid. So it is not just from Barbie doll, it comes from any images that children see and they are curious and that is why they ask" said Woo.

Woo also said that the common mistakes parents make in this era of modernity is that most parents forget to play with their children.

Modern parents with their busy schedule, at work and at home, inevitably feel contented when their children sitting down quietly on their own with their gadgets or watching television.

Many parents today feel that it is some sort of an accomplishment for them when they feel that their children are entertained and not get in the way of the parents' routine.

Parents do not realise that when they play with their children, they are actually exploring with them. Those 15 minutes a day (at least) of playtime, parents -children playtime, is the golden ticket to a healthy upraising and upbringing – a golden opportunity for parents to teach and educate and share every little detail of self-esteem.

“When we (parents) play with them (children), we are validating their feelings, we are telling them that - I am interested in your play; I am willing to play with you, and I am interested in what you are doing and I believe in you - and that means a lot to the child”

Adults love Barbie too!

Despite the controversies and the complaints parents make over the image and the impact that Barbie has on their children, undeniably,  Barbie is well loved by both children and adults.

While some adults still talk to their dolls as a form of escapism, there are some adults who are just living on a planet out of this world, where to them the impossibilities are made achieveable.

Like the real-life Barbie and Ken doll: Justin Jedlica from NYC and Ukranian, Valerie Lukyanova. Again, fantasy like this only applies in the mind and world of adults.

And then, there are some adults who is just so passionate that they make a business out of this plastic doll. These adults are called the Barbie collectors. They go around browsing the internet and toy store around the world to seek for that special Barbie that they can take home, care for and later sell at a higher value.

Believe it or not, a Barbie doll that costs less than RM300 today could bring you a pot of gold worth 5 times more in the next three years.

Mattel has a line of labels that varies in terms of value and quality as well as design, made especially for Barbie doll collectors. These collectibles are of limited production and are rarely found especially as time passed by.

For example (for real), a mint condition "#1" (1959 Barbie doll) can fetch as much as USD27, 450 from when it was first sold for just USD3.

For Faleeazikhtatius Tahir, or fondly known as Yas,a 22 year-old hair dresser in Wangsa Maju, an avid Barbie collector a fan since the past decade, his collection of Barbie is worth every single cent. He has close to 700 Barbie dolls in his room, which include Barbie's friends, Ken, Skipper and her pets, all lined up waiting to be picked up and play with.

What started as a passion for fashion, Yas became an ardent collector.

“I don’t know, it started with my interest for fashion and when I first lay my eyes on Barbie doll, I was like wow! This doll is such a fashionista, so beautiful and I told my mother, mom, I must have this doll. And amazingly, my mother did not object and since I was very young, every month, my mother will purchase one Barbie doll for me. So I guess this where and when it all started”

He first heard of this ‘business opportunity’ from his friend, when he was fifteen.

“I got to know about bidding for Barbie doll among collectors when I was 15. I never knew a Barbie doll can be so valuable. Every label carries a different value and the prices are constantly increasing. Especially for Gold Label Barbie”

The biggest profit he ever made so far was from his Christian Dior Barbie, released in 2004 which he sold last year for RM5, 000. He bought the doll for only RM250.

CD Yas
The Christian Dior Barbie which was sold at RM5,000 on e-bay, bought for less than RM300.
Although his heart breaks when he had to courier one of his favourite Barbie dolls to the United States (because that’s where the buyer is), it was indeed a desperate move for he needs the money to put down for down payment to purchase his flat. He had come to terms with his desperation and he found it to be a blessing in disguise.

He now has a recent favourite. The Herve Leger Barbie.

“So this one is the Herve Leger Barbie. I love everything about this doll. Her dress, her shoes, her hair and make-up, everything. The first time I saw her, I know I have to have her. At that point, I don’t care if I have to starve myself to buy her and so I did. I starved myself and I bought her”

To date, Yas has sold over twenty dolls via the internet and buyers are collectors from all over the world. He said there are not many Barbie doll collectors in Malaysia and the collection sold in Malaysia are very limited.  He has traveled to Singapore and even the Philippines to look for the Barbie of his dreams.

Herve Leger Barbie
Barbie doll collector, Faleeazikhtatius Tahir with his favourite Herve Leger Barbie.
Yas said that spending time with his Barbie doll, cleaning them and making sure they are dust free can be very therapeutic. He spends at least half an hour a day browsing through the internet, keeping himself abreast with the latest updates on Barbie.

Yas advised that a never-remove-from-box condition is worth much more than an opened one. To maintain Barbie in near-original condition which always adds up to the value, she said, owners must keep them in a cool and dry place, dust-free and away from direct lighting which can fade and damage the doll as well as the box.

Dolls rule

Whatever the debate is over a plastic toy that looks like an adult woman, the conclusion is simple – life is what you make out of it.

With proper input from adults to children and with ample time spent between a parent and a growing child, one's childhood can be the most memorable phase of a person’s life.

And the fact remains; a doll is just a doll. Lifeless and innocent.