Debbie was the name of my Barbie growing up. I thought it the most gorgeous name in the world, unless I had just watched an episode of “The Love Boat,” in which case I invariably considered switching Debbie’s name to Vicki.
I’ve been thinking about Debbie this week as I prepare my Christmas list for my friends’ kids. Every year, I research the hottest toys. And every year, I miss the ones I had when I was a kid.
Debbie was a Western-style Barbie, which meant she came with a cowboy hat, cowboy boots and a white satin outfit nearly buzzing with fringe. On her back, she had a button that, if pressed, made Debbie wink. And what accentuated her wink? Her violently blue eyeshadow, of course.
Debbie knew how to work it, that’s for sure.
My best friend Kristin and I each received our Western Barbie doll on the same evening. I remember we were at her Auntie Darlene and Uncle Al’s house. It must have been around Christmas because I remember the gift had been wrapped. I was about 6 and Kristin, with her Christmas birthday, would have been just on the verge of turning 8.
We opened our surprise gifts and I just couldn’t believe she was mine. And I couldn’t believe how beautiful she was.
We went upstairs while the parents partied downstairs. I vividly remember playing Barbies for the first time in a room that was still under construction. The walls had recently been painted magenta, and Western Barbie wholly approved.
That was the beginning of a serious career in playing Barbies. A year later, I received eight Barbie outfits that my aunt’s French friend had painstakingly knit. Debbie now had two going-to-work outfits. Because she now lived in Canada, she naturally had a ski outfit (complete with knit hat that regularly popped off her head). She had a large cozy sweater. She had a shawl collar coat. She even had a strapless knit ballgown, which unfortunately stretched over Barbie’s bust so was constantly falling down.
That year, I also received my first and only Barbie accessories playset. It consisted of a hairdresser’s sink, a pair of tiny yellow scissors and a yellow bottle that said “shampoo” on it.
Debbie quickly built a brisk business at her salon, which was located on the floor of our bathroom. She rode over there every morning on my brother’s 18-wheeler.
Kristin and I loved to find ways to make Barbie’s life super swanky. But we had to get creative to do it. At the beginning of each play session, we’d head to my dad’s record collection to decide on the “floor” for Barbie’s apartment. I always chose Cat Stevens’ Tea for the Tillerman album because I thought it was pretty. We turned to Lego for some essential Barbie furniture. Cotton balls became her pillows, toilet paper her quilt. At one point, a cabinet pull became an ottoman so Debbie could rest her weary, cowboy-boot clad feet after a long day at the salon.
Since the ’80s, I know Barbie has been accused of messing with the body image of little girls. I suppose if I think on it, it did with mine as well. I badly wanted blonde hair and I definitely wanted my shape to be as long and buxom as hers. I remember cracking her knees so they would bend and wondering if my Ukrainian legs would ever look like hers (the answer would be a firm no).
Still, Kristin and I managed to escape our Barbie-playing days without too much damage. I think, in part, it was because we didn’t have a California Barbie, we had a Western Barbie who, in a pinch, could lasso a horse, bale some hay, and muck a stall. Let’s remember, she had cowboy boots, not high heels. She wore fringe, not a bathing suit. She was Dolly Parton, not Christie Brinkley.
So much of it, too, had to do with our moms. Because we were so restricted in how much Barbie-related “stuff” we had, we were forced to make do, which made the play session more about invention than aspiration. Interestingly, both my and Kristin’s Barbies never considered having kids. They did have boyfriends, but they were always away on business somewhere (our moms thought Ken dolls were creepy). Debbie was too busy working to fuss with much else anyway.
By the time I reached grade 6, Debbie mostly lived in her bag of clothes on a closet shelf. But I do remember Kristin and I deciding to play Barbies one final time. We braided their hair. We took trips to the salon. We changed them into all the outfits. Already, we were nostalgic for our youth — the day had that wet-towel feeling — but were embarrassed too that we hadn’t completely graduated from it.
It took just one wink from Barbie, though, to lift our moods.