It was my 5th birthday party. I had already turned down the ruffled pink dress that her mother had carefully chosen. Instead, I opted for my usual uniform of the leggings and sweatshirt combination that was so popular in the late ’90s. was becoming My insect obsession nipped at that dream relatively early on. But I hadn’t avoided dolls entirely, so my mom decided to celebrate my birthday with perhaps the most iconic birthday food/decoration of the era: a Barbie birthday cake. .
A few days before the party, my mother chose a doll from my collection and chose the most beautiful dress, the most hair done, and the loudest, flashiest earrings. She spends an hour and a half in front of a plastic mirror to prepare for a big dance or figure skating performance, or any other event that fits her simple story. I seemed to be more put together than the others, like I spent extra.
We delivered her to the bakery section of our local Giant supermarket and handed her over to the baker. I wasn’t phased. Anyway, I preferred stuffed animals to the cold, plastic limbs and weird protruding joints of Barbie dolls.
The next time I saw her was the day of the party. Barbie’s torso jutted out of a vanilla cake covered in white and pink frosting. Barbie dolls were transformed into consumables. She was glistening with edible glitter, but her puffy skirt was sliced and torn apart, passed around and eaten by mischievous children and weary parents.
By the time the afternoon party was over, Barbie didn’t look so good. I was. A chunk of too sweet, half-eaten cake stuck to her thigh. It was forgotten in the rush.
Until that day, I had never particularly cared for this particular Barbie, but something about her new state intrigued me. She looked tired, used and a little jerky, saw thing. Her joints still have a bit of matting, but she has become my favorite Barbie. but it still looked perfect. Long, straight hair is not stained with dry frost globules. The glossy plastic legs don’t have the sticky residue that Barbie of choice suffered from. But Barbie in the cake was alive. She experienced the hustle and bustle and excitement of a grocery store bakery, watching in horror as a hungry toddler grabbed the cake skirt with her dirty fist.
In the late 90s, Barbie served as a symbol of “modern” femininity. She may have started out as a fashion designer in her ’60s, but she was a pilot, firefighter, and dentist by the ’90s. I was told that women can be anything. Barbie’s newfound financial independence apparently didn’t free her from the prison that appealed to the male gaze. I was able to go home and put on the most beautiful clothes for Ken and cook him a four course dinner. What an inspiring vision of femininity!
But my birthday cake Barbie didn’t follow in her bro’s footsteps in commercials. She never fully recovered from the bakery excursion. One earring was missing, her eyes were partially rubbed off, and she smelled faintly of vanilla. couldn’t stand by the “perfect” Barbie doll and never look like she belonged.
I, like most if not many women of my generation, grew up with a raging internalized misogyny that I had yet to fully unleash. I left my childhood with the impression that Barbie dolls (and women by extension) were lame and unserious in the worst sense of the word “for girls”. For some reason, my brother’s green plastic soldier was cooler. was
But Birthday Cake Barbie gave me a new, more resilient vision of being a woman. Yes, she was used and consumed because she is in a society where all women underestimate women and question their humanity. I couldn’t and couldn’t maintain it. She was never forced to return to cold, clear plastic bins again, and as she approaches her 30s, Barbie on her birthday cake seems like a better roll her model.
Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on her Twitter. @Sam Seating.