You’re such a doll

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A peek into María Sanchez’s stall at Seville’s oldest street market sparks a debate on the role of this traditional toy.

In March of 1959, American toy-company Mattel created one of the most well-known dolls in the world: Barbie. She owns over 40 pets, is licensed to fly, and has worked as an astronaut, race car driver, and doctor. Although Barbie’s life is meant to inspire women to achieve their dreams, is it possible that this plastic girl, and the doll industry in general, are promoting impossible standards among women?

At the Mercadillo del Jueves, hidden among historical treasures and broken artifacts, stands María Sánchez, a short, middle-aged robust woman fanning herself in an attempt to escape the Sevillian sun. She stands behind two tables covered with different types of dolls. “Though I have worked here for many years, the market generally has remained the same. My dolls have not,” she explains. “Most of the dolls were my daughter Patricia’s, who helps me at the market. Others come from my nieces. I sell them when they do not want them or when they no longer play with them.”

More than just a table full of old toys, her collection demonstrates the evolution of dolls. Sánchez has them all: plastic baby dolls with bottles, miniature dolls you can fit in your pocket, and old Barbie dolls with missing clothes (and limbs).

Ruth Handler, the former president of Mattel, created the now infamous toy girl because she liked to give her dolls “adult roles.” Before Barbie’s creation, most dolls, which emerged in ancient Greece around 100 AD as “little girls,” were representations of infants much like the one found at el Jueves.

The evolution of dolls has not come without controversy. Galia Slayen, a 20-year-old college student in New York, created a “life-size” Barbie for a school project. Her work proved that Barbie would not be able to walk in real life due to her 39-inch bust, 18-inch waist, and 33-inch hips. Furthermore, her low body mass index would likely lead to a diagnosis of anorexia.

Consequently, dolls with unrealistic bodies may affect the way young girls view their own. “Dolls today look more like anorexic adolescents. In my opinion, they do not send a good message to children,” says Elvira Iglesias Hitos, a 46-year-old tax broker living in the Macarena neighborhood. Hitos does not think the doll industry has grown in a positive way. “The purpose of dolls, though it has remained the same, accompanies stylistic changes of the dolls themselves, and young girls attempt to imitate their style,” she says.

With a shrug of her shoulders, Elvira admits that although she had one favorite doll growing up, a Nancy Negra, or Black Nancy, dolls were not her favorite toys. “I played with Nancy until I was 12 years old, changing her clothes and brushing her hair, but it usually was when I was sick and had to stay in the house.” She also explains that her 16-year-old daughter Marina did not play with dolls as a child either.

Along the long stretch of clothing stores on Tetuán Street lies Imaginarium—a child’s version of heaven. Félix Tena founded this toy store in Zaragoza, Spain, in 1992. Lucía, a young brunette woman who works in this Imaginarium shop in Seville, confirms that dolls are one of the more popular toys they sell and believes “they absolutely have a positive impact on young girls [because] dolls help foster creativity and are simply meant for having fun.” Lucía explains that they do not sell Barbies and that their most popular doll is Nicoleta, who is available in different races and resembles a girl’s natural features. Nicoleta does not imitate an infant or an adult Barbie but rather represents a new type of doll, which Lucía says is perfect for today’s contemporary girl.

Martina Pardo, a four-year-old girl who lives with her family near the Alameda de Hercules in Seville, helps demonstrate that despite the controversy surrounding the evolution of dolls, to young girls dolls are simply toys. Martina explains that her favorite doll is a rag doll with braided hair that she received for Christmas last year. Martina carries the unnamed doll with her at all times while she is in the house and even sleeps with her, putting a blanket over her to keep her warm at night.

Martina’s 23-year-old sister, María, also chimes in with her own memories about the dolls she played with as a child. She says Barbie dolls were her favorite, especially the one that her dad bought her when she was nine years old at FAO Schwarz, a famous toy store in New York City. “The doll wore the uniform of an American baseball team, the New York Yankees, which I loved. The uniform was blue and white, and I thought it was really pretty. I remember playing with her in a dollhouse I owned which was overflowing with accessories. Most importantly, however, the doll reminds me of my trip to New York, and I still have it in my room to this day,” she says.

Though some people have stigmatized dolls as supporting an unrealistic body image, there is no consensus on whether an 11.5-inch plastic figure is to blame for the issues surrounding female roles in today’s society. In the end, dolls are “a child’s toy, puppet, marionette, etc. made to resemble a human being.” Dolls are just dolls.