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We wanted pink-boxed Barbies with pink nails pink lipstick pink dreams; with blue eyes, blonde hair, D-cups round as snow cones, bodies nipple-less, hairless, dimple-less sheets of skin pulled tight over boneless skeletons like saran wrap; with tiny relevéd feet, tiny corseted waist, tiny gumdrop nose. We begged our parents for Totally Hair Barbie, Earring Magic Barbie, Sparkle Eyes Barbie; Barbies that danced shopped dressed up for dates with Ken.

“Girls and their dolls,” our fathers laughed, pleased with our simple desires that fit snugly into their understanding of the female. So easy to please! When they looked at us, they still saw our seven-year-old selves from six years ago—pink cheeks pink bows pink tutus.

“If you’re a good girl, maybe for Christmas,” our mothers said, relieved they still recognized us. Lately, they didn’t appreciate our nasty attitude, the razor tongue we sharpened in the mirror each morning, the questions we answered with vinegar-laced snarls. They worried our unpleasant demeanor was punishment for listening to Nirvana on the radio when pregnant, for allowing that Cobain angst to seep into the little ears of their cantaloupe-sized fetus.

Our mothers hoped our Barbie demands were proof that our Little Miss Trouble behavior was only a phase, a side effect of puberty, a reaction to our blossoming bodies. Just like their Nirvana years, we would grow out of it—would abandon our scowls for smiles, would renounce our tattered tees for floral frocks, would curl our hair the way mommy did in college when she wanted daddy to notice her, to ask her out, to kiss her on their first date.

And so, we were very good girls. Come Christmas morning, we wore the evergreen taffeta dresses, the plaid skirts with matching red sweaters, the cranberry velvet pinafores our parents insisted made us look so pretty! even though the fabric clawed at our necks and the stockings pinched our toes. Our fathers clutched their chests as if an arrow had pierced their heart, promising us the neighborhood boys would start sniffing around like bloodhounds. They shook their heads with pride, like farmers pleased their crops had finally sprouted, were finally worth something. Our mothers smoothed an errant hair from our forehead. That’s better, they nodded. If only we would stand still long enough for them to glue the loose thread in our tights before it became a run.

We endured all of it. It was the price we paid for the gift buried beneath the tree. And when we uncovered our Barbies—wrapped in candy cane-print wrapping paper, in pink bags with pink tissue paper, in velvet Santa sacks tied with silk ribbons, with notes signed from Santa and Aunt Josephine and Mom and Dad with love—we squealed with delight. We unwrapped them and hugged them and set them down nicely on the couch when it was time for dinner.

When our parents fell asleep that night, we slipped knives from kitchens, screwdrivers from toolboxes, scissors from desk drawers. Tip-toeing to and from our rooms in the blinding darkness of night, we dared not wake our parents. Back in our dimly lit bedrooms, we cradled our Barbies and started with the head. 

It only took a few rough cuts to remove Barbie’s hair, a pile of synthetic blonde prostrate at our feet. We scratched at the blue eye shadow, ripped off button earrings, shredded dresses. We cut open the tops of their heads and incised a line down their torsos, expecting a hollow cavern but only encountering more sand-hued vinyl.

We wanted to find the brain, the heart, the hard stone of what our mothers called femininity but couldn’t tell us where it came from, where it lived, what it looked like—only that we were supposed to embrace it. But we found no answers, nothing to explain why Barbie was Barbie and we were not, why we would never be, why we didn’t want to be. 

Our mothers said they created us in their image, so we made Barbie in ours. Using scraps of fabric, we fashioned them overalls and baseball caps. We carved scars on their kneecaps, inked a constellation of stars down their arms, whispered ugly secrets into their ears. Crouched over our creations—dark circles hugging our eyes, scabbed-knees digging into the carpet, curls fallen into tangled nests—we scratched and rubbed and cut. When we finished, when we finally had what we wanted, we sighed in relief and thought, that’s better.