Devin Baker says she can’t remember a time where she didn’t have Barbies as a child. She’d do all the expected activities with her dolls: Dress them in fun outfits, create the stories of their lives and give them the occasional haircut.
But when she’d get bored of Barbie, she’d get ruthless. Baker would take her Barbies apart, limb by limb, often to prank her mother.
“I’d hide the body parts across the house,” Baker, now a 27-year-old teacher in Boston, tells TODAY.com. “My mom would be cooking dinner and all of a sudden there’s a Barbie leg and it would scare her.”
Baker admits she was afraid to go on the record about her Barbie amputating habit for fear of sounding like a budding serial killer. “I don’t know what (it) says about me,” she says.
But it turns out Baker is far from alone. TODAY.com heard from nearly a dozen former Barbie lovers who all shared stories of doll destruction.
Ashley Ray, comedian and host of the “TV I Say” podcast, tells TODAY.com that she both idolized her Barbies — and was willing to put them through the wringer.
“I would sleep with my Barbies at night,” Ray, 32, says. “My mom and I would do the Lord’s Prayer every night and I would say my blessings. I would be like, ‘God bless my family and my mom, all eight of my brothers and sisters,’ and then I would list out all of my Barbies. I would truly be like, ‘God, please protect my cowboy Barbie, my Thai princess Barbie.’ Like I would truly do that.”
“And then I would wake up in the morning, tie them to my fan and pretend it was a roller coaster,” she continues. “Or I would be like, ‘What happens if you put a Barbie hand or arm in the microwave? I just want to see.’”
The “Barbie” movie even acknowledges the doll’s private, gruesome history with the character “Weird Barbie,” a doll played by Kate McKinnon that sports a razor-sharp, obviously hand-cut bob, and glittery, zig-zag makeup all over her face — the result of having been played with “too hard.” She lives out her days in exile from the other Barbies in her “Weird House.”
These past antics — which include throwing Barbie off the balcony and burning her plastic body over the kitchen stove — hint at a much wider, yet often unspoken, phenomenon among young girls. We spoke to a child psychologist to understand why our Barbies so often ended up battered, bald and limbless.
Why did we behead Barbie? Let a child therapist explain
Looking back, Baker can’t explain why she did all the things she did to her Barbie. “I think I was just experimenting with ideas, but I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t have any idea where it came from,” she says.
Amber Przybyla, an art therapist and licensed professional counselor at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, ensured TODAY.com that playing "too hard" with Barbies is totally normal, and not the footnote in the biography of a future criminal.
“What I see across gender, across age, across play, is it’s fun to destroy things,” Przybyla says. “It’s such an important part of the developmental process.”
“I’m sure a lot of people think, ‘Why would I do that?’” Przybyla continues. “But the truth is, when kids are playing, it’s play. Even if it’s more aggressive or it seems messed up, like you’re ripping Barbie’s head off. We can root into the fact that it’s developmentally appropriate, that it’s the development of social and emotional skills, and it’s also that dolls are still very tactile."
Przybyla adds playing with dolls is the ultimate place for self-expression as a child, whether it’s living out their dreams or working through real-life problems.
“It becomes a safe space for them to explore and work through these things, without the risk of someone else’s reaction,” she says. “Doll play is so vital to child development.”
Put it all together, and now we know why we all felt compelled to put shears to our Barbies' locks.
“We can cut Barbie’s hair and not get in trouble, but cutting our own hair?” she says with a laugh. “(Barbie) is a safe place to push boundaries a little bit, but it’s also low risk.”
‘I was her God’: Designing a Barbie’s life
Przybyla says the topic of control comes up frequently in her sessions with children, and is a major appeal of playing with dolls.
“The hardest thing about being a kid is you don’t have control. Your autonomy is so much lower for many reasons,” Przybyla says. “And so absolutely, I think with dolls, you’re gonna see a kid do things so that they can assert control, because when we can assert control in some aspect of our life, it actually makes it easier to cope with where we don’t have control.”
Indeed, for Ray, the thrill of playing with Barbie was the thrill of complete control. Her computer games were monitored. Her play dates had an end time. Barbie, Ray says, was the one part of her young life over which she had total autonomy.
“My Barbies, there were no rules,” Ray says. “I think to some extent, my mom wanted me to have that freedom — like my Barbie world was the only place where as a young girl I had full control. I was the judge and the jury — I was Barbie’s God.
“Being a young girl, where every other aspect of your life is so controlled, you never have the chance to truly just do what you want outside of other people watching you or being concerned about you,” she adds. “But when I was playing with my Barbies, and sticking pens in their eyes, no one was really concerned.”
Through Barbie, Ray was also able to process her emotions and explore unfamiliar ideas.
“Barbie could be this tool for curiosity for girls. I didn’t want to play with Legos and have to build stuff. I wanted to play with Barbies and recreate soap operas and be like, ‘Why are you cheating?’” she says. “You pick up on things and you want to explore those ideas — you want to understand them and Barbie has this safe space to do that.”
Essentially, when she was playing with Barbie, Ray got to be the adult for a change.
“I never felt the pressure to live up to Barbie,” Ray says. “I guess I always thought Barbie had the pressure to live up to my imagination and my dreams.”
Play doesn’t always mean something — but sometimes, it does
While Przybyla reassures that Barbie experiments don’t foretell a life of violence, they can be indicative of a person’s path.
When Patricia Ayers, 59, looks back at how she played with her Barbies as a child, she’s surprised to find that she ended up recreating many of the activities she did with Barbie (only this time, she was the Barbie).
“I’ve done things like skydiving, rappelling, any adventure sport that you can think of,” Ayers says. “And that’s what my Barbie did when I was 8, 9, 10. I was just having my Barbie do anything that my mind could possibly create.”
Ayers played with Barbies back when they were just fashion dolls — not surgeons or famous historical figures. But in Ayers and her twin sister’s eyes, the possibilities she represented were limitless.
“I thought, this represents me as a future woman. And I can make her be anything that I want her to be. I saw her as the superhero," she says.
Ayers recalls throwing her Barbies down two flights of stairs to simulate skydiving, and leaving Barbie outside through a massive snowstorm in Indiana, where she grew up.
“There’s our hero Barbie, surviving the blizzard. She was unconquerable. I look back now and that’s the mentality that I have about myself. Your limits, in so many ways, are just what you put on yourself, and that would never have been true of a baby doll.”
Przybyla says play can lead to self-discovery, as it did for Ayers.
“It creates a place for (children) to explore themselves and what they might be interested in, or what they might not be interested in. And it’s a place to do it privately, where they’re not going to necessarily get in trouble.”
And the play goes on. A few days after our interview, Ayers sent a series of photos of her two granddaughters playing at the pool. Obviously, she says, they had to bring Mermaid Barbie along.
“I thought you might like to see what they do to terrorize her,” she captioned a video of her grandchildren throwing the doll into the pool from the diving board over and over. “She should have drowned multiple times by now.”
But she didn’t, of course — she’s Barbie.