Chewing Barbie’s Feet
Contemplating our mortality under capitalism
Full disclosure: I have not seen Barbie. Not yet. But on Sunday, a friend shared photos of her opening night Barbie party. One—of a product with the “do you guys ever think about dying?” tagline—caught my eye. I broke down and watched the trailer. Obviously, having just written a book about death, I was reeled in.
What interested me most was the plot point about Barbie’s feet. It’s clear even from the trailer that as she becomes conscious of mortality, her bizarre signature arched feet go (to the disgust of her friends) flat. This mutation of Barbie’s feet brought me back to a conversation I was having, about Barbie, on Twitter a couple of months ago.
In response to a comment that Barbie imposed unrealistic beauty standards on girls, a friend observed that they’d never thought of Barbie as someone to imitate. For some reason, this made me think of a body modification that my friend often performed on her Barbies as a child: she chewed off Barbie’s feet. I mentioned this, on Twitter, and my friend said that they knew several people who had done this, noting “I think it was a whole thing!”
At first, I was a little shocked. I only had one Barbie, as a child. Just one Barbie and one (flat-footed) Skipper. I can remember thinking that it seemed wasteful to destroy her feet, given that they would never grow back. I was cautious with my one Barbie in ways that girls with dozens of dolls could afford not to be. But, the more I think about it now, the more it actually makes sense to me.
It makes sense on a visceral and sensual level. When I was a kid, Barbie’s legs were made of a plastic that was harder than her air-filled head, but softer than her bullet-breasted body. Her legs were long and a bit rubbery. I think the leg plastic might have been vinyl? At the end of them were her impossibly pointed, impossibly tiny little feet. The toes, themselves, were like a fragile little articulated crust at the foot’s end that was begging to be chewed off. When I really think about it, I can imagine that it was very pleasing to gnaw off those articulated toes, with your teeth, like I can imagine how satisfying it is for my dog to chew away at her bone. It’s a way to see your own power at work!
It’s possible that chewing Barbie’s feet also had a more philosophical motivation. I don’t think that my friend, or other foot chewers, were actively contemplating their motivations, to be sure. But perhaps there were some subconscious motivations at work. Perhaps chewing Barbie’s feet was a way of mangling the body that seemed to impose its bizarre and impossible standards on you. Maybe it was a form of revenge. Perhaps it was a way of taking pleasure in Barbie’s destruction; an act of incapacitating her already almost incapacitated body.
But I honestly don’t recall my friend having any particular issues with Barbie. She liked her. What if the underlying motive, for Barbie chewers, wasn’t hatred and destruction but instead a form of affection or care?
We often associate teeth with our mortality. Our teeth are fragile and exposed bones that clearly show their wear, over time. Dreams about teeth falling out, or breaking, often signal that we are struggling with some major existential form of stress. But our feet are also signs and symbols of our mortal fragility.
People are fascinated with baby feet and toes. They do seem miraculous: feet that have never had to hold an entire gangly body up in space against the forces of gravity! They are tiny, tender, and unworn. Baby feet seem almost too cute, too soft, too tender, to be real.
One of the first signs, for me, that I was aging came from my feet. I’d always been proud of my ability to run and stroll around in almost any sort of high heel. I walked miles and miles in shoes that were probably destroying me, and I think I took a kind of macho pride in it. I didn’t know many men with the sort of balance, or tolerance for pain, that you need for shoes like that. But at some point, yes, my feet started to look a little mangled. The damage, the wear and tear, was making itself evident. And I was losing my ability to tolerate that sort of pain (too much pain tolerance needed, elsewhere). So I gave up the Very High Heels. I still do wear heels. Just not Very High Heels. It made me feel old. But I was wise enough, by that point, to know that I needed to protect my feet and make them last.
Our feet remind us that we are mortal. As Barbie begins to contemplate mortality, this awareness registers itself—first—in her feet. What if the kids who chewed Barbie’s feet were reminding her, or themselves, of our mortality? What if the chewing was, in part, a way to highlight the limits of a toy that is (admittedly) made of materials that will last much longer than we will, but is still destructible? What if it was a way to mortalize Barbie, and remind her that she’s real?
Under capitalism, toys are one of the primary ways that children come into contact with their mortality. Not the actual death of people they love (many privileged Americans are shielded from that until adulthood!) Not death in nature (this, too, is absent from much of American life). And certainly not in the fantastic performances of mortality that are mediated to kids though movies and TV, which always seems like a fairy tale that happens only in the world of fiction. American kids process the fact of mortality, first and most viscerally, through their toys. The death of a toy, the loss of a toy, the dissolution of a toy is a hard and cold reminder of non-negotiable mortal limits.
I don’t know that I realized this until I watched it happen, with my own kid. We tried (futilely) to limit the number and type of toys that she had access to. We wanted her to appreciate the things that she had, to take care of them and value them. She’s accumulated a lot of junk, because people love the feeling they get when they give kids candy and junk. But she’s certainly learned the lesson that we wanted her to. She really, really, really loves all of her toys. Every single one. Even the very junky ones. She hates to throw things away. I can’t tell you how many tears she has lost over cheap, plastic, broken toys. Most recently, she acquired a pair of wind-up chattering teeth, which delighted her for less than twenty-four hours before breaking, and breaking her heart.
I’m sure you will be unsurprised to learn that my daughter loves the story of The Velveteen Rabbit: that old tale of the toy rabbit who is so deeply loved, he eventually becomes real. My daughter has her own beloved toy rabbit: Buddy (a one-year-old’s mispronunciation of “bunny” that eventually just became a name). It was a gift on her first birthday that she’s slept with every single night since. Now that she’s seven, Buddy’s tail has been worn away and their fur (Buddy is sometimes a girl, sometimes a boy) is stubbly. So, my daughter has always felt that she has her own Velveteen Rabbit.
The difference, of course, is that Buddy has not yet become real. Buddy is hovering on the verge of being so beloved that they’re real. But instead Buddy remains a toy, which is probably what gives my daughter the sense of safety, comfort, and security that she associates with Buddy. This toy rabbit is a daily reminder of permanence. Buddy makes her feel that there is something stable and unchanging in her world. Buddy is a symbol of eternity. Even I, her mother, am too much of an ever-shifting bustle of impulse and feeling to offer her anything like that. I have honestly had real nightmares about losing Buddy. I can only imagine the emotional and existential crisis that would ensue. The death of Buddy will be a true reckoning with impermanence and mortality.
The Velveteen Rabbit was published in 1922, a mere fifteen years after the first form of fully synthetic plastic was pioneered. But Margery Williams could already observe what industrialization had done to the world of childhood (beyond child factory labor). It’s clear, from the story, that she’s a bit disgusted by the way that children were already being inundated (suffocated, really!) with an endless stream of bright and shiny toys. She knew that there is an impulse, deep within many kids, to resist the callousness that this can easily produce. She knew that play is about building and rehearsing relationships, and that kids can easily come to love any worn and dirty thing. Indeed, dirt and wear are themselves signs of love and affection, in the world of a toy. She wanted to encourage that form of resistance, to encourage kids to cling to the worn and dirty thing they really love. She must have also know that this was, ultimately, a form of practice for the kind of love they would need for their own body, that would become worn and dirty.
Was the act of chewing Barbie’s feet an act of love? A gesture at making her real? A way of remembering that being real (being alive) is—at its most potent and transcendent—a form of coming undone, a way of being broken?
I’ll probably go see Barbie, at some point. I’m curious enough. But I feel like I’m already sold on the argument that Greta Gerwig has made a philosophical movie. It would have been so easy to make this movie into another form of candy. But she must have seen what Margery Williams saw, in our relationship with toys. She must seen that we, those former kids who grew up on the fantastic plastic of capitalism, are primed to grapple with our mortality through toys. It makes me sad, to think about this. It’s such a cheap and ugly way to contemplate our mortality, isn’t it? But we have to take what we can get. And, honestly, if Barbie can help me practice the kind of resistance I will need to love my own worn body as it ages (as capitalism tries to feed me increasingly expensive youth serums, and well-placed visions of pampered baby feet), I will take it. Especially if I don’t even have to pay, and can get it all from the trailer.
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