That Girl

You know the stereotypical nerdy introvert with thick spectacles and her nose in a book? She’s organised, disciplined and does so well in school that it seems success is inevitable. Of course you do. Everybody knows that girl. The one everyone expects great things from because she has no excuse to screw up.

For most of my life, I was that girl. I was the one who took meticulous notes, got the work done ahead of schedule and had enough time left to write clumsy novels. Sure, there was that ill-advised dalliance with art school – but I made up for it by graduating top of my class in a far more practical programme. I got into a fantastic internship. I was promising.

But I’m not that girl anymore. I can’t be. I screw up a lot.

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Like the other stereotype, the one who can’t get her act together. She’s smart too, but in the unorthodox way that’s only useful if you’re incredibly talented or fabulously wealthy. She’s fickle. She makes decisions nobody gets. They give her the benefit of the doubt, but every time she has a fantastic idea that doesn’t quite pan out, they worry.

I’m that girl. The one who’s a writer because she has no patience for anything else. The flighty one who’s never had a proper job, can’t multitask and has a panic attack every time she has to make a decision. The girl who wanted to be a nun because the idea of living in the world while not living in it was her idea of heaven.

Yep. That’s me.

I don’t quite know how the transformation happened. I was on the right track…and then I wasn’t. I’ve always been cautious, afraid of making the wrong choice, but everybody said, “Oh, you’ll do well. You’re smart.” Huh. If I’m so smart, why haven’t I figured out how to be a grownup?

There’s a huge difference between the skills that get you through school and the ones that get you through real life. Maybe I was too busy trying to be the good little girl to learn how to handle my business. Now all the kids whose homework I used to do are stable and successful, and I haven’t figured out how to earn a decent living. Maybe I should have had more fun. Maybe I’m going to be the batty old writer living in a caravan with twenty cats. Assuming I can afford to feed twenty cats.

Or maybe (fingers crossed) there’s another girl that no one tells us about when we’re kids. Not the dutiful wife and mother, the go-getting corporate shark, the starving artist. Not the backpacking ashram-dweller or the fierce activist. Not the sex-symbol, the fashionista, the girl next door.

A girl who’s an unholy mixture of all stereotypes – or something entirely different. A girl who can take her time figuring out what she wants because her generation has the luxury and burden of choice. A girl who can screw up and get back on her feet, lose it all and start over. A girl who’s got what it takes to be pretty much anything she can conjure up – and blog about it, too.

Maybe I’m that girl. I hope so, because a) she sounds badass and b) if I’m not her, I’m screwed.


Barbie Girl

I don’t get it.

Sure, I get the politics. I get the body-conscious palaver, the rage against the  beauty machine, the arguments for realism, variation and standards that don’t make girls want to kill themselves. That is clear to me. Clear, valid, justified. Completely.

Here’s what I don’t get. How is it that a whole world of young girls grew up seeing Barbie as anything more than a doll to play dress-up with? How did she become an icon?

For me, Barbie had no identity. I loved the dolls because they were small enough to work with. Barbie was nothing more than a blank canvas on which to paint my stories. Baby dolls were fine at first, but even an imagination as vivid as mine had trouble casting a diapered imitation of a child as a detective, or a scientist, or the queen of an imaginary kingdom. When I got my first Barbie I was thrilled. Something with legs and arms I could move, hair I could style and cut (bad idea) and, most importantly, a body I could put costumes on. Heaven.

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It didn’t occur to me that I was supposed to look at this plastic creation and see the figure I should have when I grew up. Much as I loved my dolls, their figures were frustrating. They didn’t have enough butt to fill out a pair of hand stitched pants. Their breasts were too big – when I needed a young girl or an extra boy I had to resort to careful styling. And those feet, designed for heels, were useless for actually standing, so all my characters had to sit or lean against something. But I was a professional, so I made it work.

When I grew up I began to understand that out there, in that mythical place referred to as “The West”, people were OBSESSED with Barbie. Not Barbie the doll, but Barbie the persona. The notion that Barbie had a persona to start with was news to me. My sister and I called our collection of Barbies and similar dolls “The Barbs”. They were an amalgamation of characters we had cooked up – journalists, police officers, undefined science types, fashion designers and pharmaceutical moguls.

All my fond memories of them are based on the stories they were cast in. Our first attempt at science fiction – a story we called Launch. Our boarding school stories, which required us to make grey and white uniforms. The Marguerite series, set in “the olden days”, the costumes for which required layers and layers of fabric.

cwToday the idea of parting with The Barbs is anathema. Not so much because of the dolls, though we love them, but because of all the stuff. Clothes upon clothes upon clothes, all made by hand with love. Accessories, also made or adapted (like the old buckles that turned into handbags). Shoes, handcrafted by Jamelia Choo (yes, we did) out of cardboard, elastic and bits of colourful string. Years of artwork we created for our countless “Barbie games”.

When I was studying art, I wrote a paper on Barbie. It was the first time I really understood that this toy was a celebrity in her own right. I was fascinated, disturbed and amused. Only in The West could such a thing happen. Africans had more important things to think about, right? Wrong. To my surprise there were scores of black girls out there who felt disenfranchised because the majority of dolls in the shops were white.

Sorry, but that just confused me. Forget a doll that looks like me – I wanted a doll that could change according to my whim. I want her to be a reptilian alien, a long-limbed ebony-skinned supermodel, and a hapless freckled redhead. I turned blonde ice-skaters into mixed-race security guards. How? Well, mostly by popping her head onto the body of a Ken doll, but sometimes by dressing her in baggy clothes and giving her a gruff voice. If I got sick of her hair, I changed it. To this day one of the Barbs has a wig, another has an ill-advised bob cut, and a third has braids that fall to her knees. It took me a whole day to do that, with actual hairpieces. I can’t complain about the way they looked when I got them. I barely remember how they looked when I got them. Mattel gave me a blank canvas, and I painted a masterpiece.

There are many issues involved in the Barbie debate and I appreciate all of them. A global toy company should cater for all types of children, especially in this day and age. I’m up there with all the others, waving my placards. But my issues are with Mattel, not Barbie. Why blame her for the shortcomings of her creators? It’s not her fault she’s white and skinny with a chest that defies gravity. The truth is I don’t give a damn what Barbie looks like. If I have my way, she won’t look that way for long.

One day I might have a kid who doesn’t think the way I do. God forbid she is one of those people who (gasp, shudder!) keep all their dolls in their original clothing. I’ll get her a doll she can identify with, but I’ll also get her scissors, paint and a sewing kit. You know, just in case.

You’re Sexy (And you don’t know it)

You might wonder why I’m fanning myself on a winter evening. It’s cold out there, but it’s hot in here. For one thing, your tie is showing. Then there’s the suit that drapes seductively over your broad, manly shoulders, the utterly indecent haircut you got two days ago, your jaw-dropping grasp of whatever it is you’re rambling about with such titillating eloquence…

I’m at a disadvantage. You’re seducing me shamelessly and I can’t return the favour; you’ve already told me I remind you of your mother. I wanted to wear that other outfit, the one so tight I can barely breathe in it, but I was told it was too revealing. Ha. No mother ever said to her son, “Cover up those sneakers – they’re too revealing.” No one tells a man that his flashy car is too sexy for the office, or that his shirt makes him look like a whore. When a successful man is accosted by a horde of adoring females, no one says, “He asked for it. Did you see how expertly tailored his suit was?” Well, they should. Because here’s a little something no one thinks about – suits are sexy.

A girl might need a cold shower after watching a well-dressed man walk past. But he’s allowed to be sexy. She’s not. When people think about sex they envision the female form, because apparently that’s all it’s good for. A naked man is comical, or awkward, or creepy. A naked man can mean anything. A naked woman means sex. It’s as though women’s bodies exist for no purpose other than arousing or refraining from arousing men’s desire. No one thinks about what arouses our desire. Yes, that’s right – we get turned on, too. We get tempted. Why aren’t the moral police clamouring for men to be less sexually provocative? I’ll tell you why – they don’t know that women get turned on, and if they did, they’d assume we get turned on by the same thing as men. Newsflash, boys – we’re far more subtle.

So here’s my suggestion. If women are not allowed to be sexually provocative in public, then neither are men. No more wearing snazzy suits in public. No more speaking eloquently and with admirable authority in public. No more flaunting your success, athletic prowess, or business savvy. By all means, be a sexy hotshot go-getter. Just not where I can see you.

It’s not fair that I’m subjected to your suave sophistication or your Levis jeans that fit just so. It’s not right that you throw your obscenely expensive musky fragrance at me, along with your polished leather shoes, your articulate manner, your five o-clock shadow, your artful bedhead. Stop shaking your naked ambition in my face! It’s downright immoral!

I’ll cover my chest, hips, butt, lower back – whatever bits get you worked up. You cover your intelligence, earning potential, efficiency, and charm. I’ll try not to tempt you, and you try not to tempt me. If I can wear a long skirt, you can wear a cheap suit. If I can forgo that low-cut top, you can forgo that pimped-out ride. I’ll cover up. You shut up.

Do we have a deal?