Barbie Unbound

Lordy, lordy. Look who's turning 40! It's Barbie. Barbie, as in the billion-dollar, femininely-incorrect doll with the trademarked shade of pink. Hard to believe. That statuesque (6'9" and 38-18-34) role model for generations of American girls is still on her toes, despite backlash from parents who equate playing with Barbie with a prelude to anorexia.But Barbie's not just getting older, she's getting better. Mattel Inc. has announced a Barbie makeover, only the third since the doll was introduced in 1959, to begin in January. She'll be wearing less makeup, a less toothy smile and a body which is more humanly proportional (36-24-36, perhaps). Torpedo boobs, be gone."I am just amused that the 'fatter' Barbie coincides with the year of her 40th birthday," said Sarah Strohmeyer, author of "Barbie Unbound, A Parody of the Barbie Obsession." "She won't be the only 40-year-old looking in the mirror and sighing for younger days. Now, all she needs is a few wrinkles and sagging bosoms."Well, if Mattel needs an example of how Barbie can "get real," Strohmeyer is just the woman to show them. Turn to page 60 for Hot Flash Barbie, complete with gray hair, wrinkles and estrogen patch. In "Barbie Unbound," Barbie wears faces of reality you'll never see amid the pink glow of the toy store aisles. This tongue-in-cheek book tells you exactly how to create your own alternative Barbies and comes complete with goals, instructions, backgrounds and discussion questions.There's Safe Sex Barbie cuddling Ken who's dressed in a full bodysuit condom; PMS Barbie crazed with fangs and bloating; Overweight Outcast Adolescent Barbie who comes with "three styles of unflattering, polyester gym uniforms, great personality and magic phone that never rings." Meet Shock Jock Barbie and hear about her bestselling book, "I Wish I Had Private Parts." Or Barbie Plath: What A Gas! -- the goal here is to learn about one of the finest feminist poets and "to finally use that E-Z Bake Over for something other than those under-cooked brownies you always make."Strohmeyer's casting of Barbie is sharp and often laugh-out-loud funny. Geoff Hansen's photos illustrate and enhance each unbound Barbie concept. Depending on the age of the reader, the Barbies can be a history or current event lesson. My 13-year-old son didn't get the concept of "J. Edgar Hoover Ken Shops at the Barbie Boutique," but loved "Grooin' Gravity Galileo Barbie" with its goal of dropping Barbie off a five-story building to study the law of falling bodies.Strohmeyer's book started as a project for long, cold, Vermont winter nights. Neighborhood moms asked that she keep her daughter's Barbie out of the sight of their little girls because the toy set a bad example. "The final straw for me came one morning when my daughter went for a playdate at the house of her best friend," Strohmeyer said. "The mother took me aside and politely explained how it would be best if Anna refrained from even discussing Barbie." Censoring a reporter's child? That was unacceptable. So why not the alternation to stuffing Barbie in the closet for the sake of political correctness. Why not give her other roles to play?Over the course of a year, between writing for the Valley News of Lebanon, N.H., and taking care of her two children, Strohmeyer wrote down ideas for alternative Barbies. The next step was to create samples. Most of the work was done in her kitchen with she and her husband rolling tiny Barbie cigarettes and experimenting to get all those different looks from a face that never changes.While going from an idea to a book might seem a leap of Grand Canyon-size for most people, for 34-year-old Strohmeyer, it is just following in the footsteps of her parents. Father John Strohmeyer, a Pulitzer Prize winner for editorials about ethnic tensions in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and the former Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage, has written several books, including "Extreme Conditions" about Alaska oil. Her mother Nancy, local pen name Nancy Jordan, worked for the Anchorage Times and is author of "Frontier Physician: The Life and Legend of C. Earl Albreht." So they weren't surprised to hear about the project."This isn't the first time Sarah has addressed a problem through humor," said her mother. "When she was editor of the college paper at Tufts, she put out an April 1 edition which addressed some heavy-handed abuses by facility members in a humorous way. The result was a meeting during which the abuses were addressed and eliminated."Still, the road to publication is paved with rejection slips. Strohmeyer found an agent who shopped the manuscript at 30 publishers before giving up. The potential for a lawsuit from Mattel stopped the book's momentum. Making fun of Barbie was an even bigger no-no than exposing the doll to children in her Vermont home. She shelved the project for a year, then re-worked it into its present format and started trying to sell it again. Finally, she connected with New Victoria Publishers, a feminist press.Then serendipity in marketing. The book is riding the wave of Barbie publicity generated by Mattel and for the controversial song, "Barbie Girl" by Aqua. The media is fascinated by why the project was started in the first place, i.e., life in a Barbie-hating town. Not only was she featured in BookExpo America '97, Strohmeyer has gotten other national media coverage in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Daily News and Entertainment Weekly. She's been asked to recruit other mothers in her neighborhood for a segment about Barbie for national television.All in all, Strohmeyer is amazed. The biggest fans are teenagers and women over 45. No phone call yet from Mattel and the book is now going through its third edition in just three weeks. Check the local book stores or buy it on line from Barnes & Noble's Booklist between "Barbie, the first Thirty Years" and Veterinarian Barbie. And, Strohmeyer suggests, "Don't forget to throw a shrimp on the Barbie."T. Massari McPherson never played with Barbie because, at that stage of her development, she looked like Natasha, the shapely and brittle Soviet spy, on "Rocky and Bullwinkle."

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