How Mattel Tried to Silence Me And Other Young Women Writing About Body Image

When I was a year out of college, in 1998, the book “Adiós, Barbie” was published, and it contained an essay I wrote. The book is an anthology of young women’s perspectives on body image and identity. My essay is titled “At Home in My Body: An Asian-American Athlete Searches for Self.” I wrote about growing up biracial — Filipina and white — and having strangers try to define me by walking up and asking, “What are you?” I also talked about how I started to define myself as an athlete in college. My sport was rowing.

When I was little, I had never seen an Asian version of Barbie. Barbies didn’t look like me. And neither did most NCAA rowers — the sport was overwhelmingly white. But my teammates and I bonded over gradually realizing that what our increasingly strong bodies could do was more important than what we looked like, and I felt accepted by the group in a way I never had before. I grew more confident, owning my identity as an Asian American athlete.

Other “Adiós, Barbie” authors wrote about being Black, brown, fat and otherwise outside of the Barbie mold — having a Jewish nose, a big butt, textured hair. The book was published by Seal Press, a small feminist publisher (now an imprint of Hachette).

The book release was exciting. I was working at my first “real job” as a copy editor in northern Virginia. My co-workers noticed when it was written up in The Washington Post and brought in copies of the paper. The book was used in women’s studies classes all over the country. I was thrilled that I had contributed to an anthology that was helping other young women think about body image, race and other factors that add up to who we are and how we see ourselves.

However, a year after the book was published, Mattel sued Seal Press, arguing that it infringed on its trademark by including Barbie in the book’s title, along with the doll foot, hair brush, shoe and necklace on the cover image. Seal Press, without the resources needed to succeed against corporate giant Mattel in court, settled the case. It agreed to pay Mattel $10,000 and to stop selling the current version of the book after 4,000 copies, and to stop using any “elements of the BARBIE Trade Dress” or imitations of it.

Barbie’s trade dress included “the distinctive pink color used by Mattel for the BARBIE trademark and/or on BARBIE products, the BARBIE doll’s leg and foot featuring toes on point, the doll’s distinctive high-heeled pump shoes, the doll’s distinctive scallop-shell hairbrush and the doll’s distinctive heart-shaped charm necklace,” the court judgment read.

On the cover of “Adiós, Barbie,” the word “Adiós” is pink. Mattel said Seal Press couldn’t use that color. Barbie pink is off-limits. But Barbie pink is just ... hot pink. A toy company laying claim to a shade of pink? It’s a bad look.

The agreement allowed Seal Press to keep publishing the book if it removed all these elements. The book was republished with a new title, “Body Outlaws,” and a new cover, but the title “Adiós, Barbie”had been a perfect fit. Just like the little, pink high-heeled pump on the permanently curved Barbie foot.

I’m thankful that Mattel didn’t end up quashing the book entirely. But it was disappointing to see Mattel go after a small feminist press and squeeze $10,000 out of it. Seal Press had given “Adiós, Barbie” a chance and brought it to readers who, like me, were at the beginning of our careers and were starting to assert and define ourselves — and our feminism — after growing up with Barbie as the standard.

Ophira Edut, the book’s editor, started Hear Us Emerging Sisters, the first national multicultural women’s magazine, with her sister and their friend, who was my classmate in a creative writing course at the University of Michigan. She invited me to join the magazine, and I loved the discussions we had within the group of women. I was in my element; it was the first time my writing was published in a magazine. A little later, Edut asked me about contributing to “Adiós, Barbie,” and I was all in.

I asked Edut what she thought of the movie and its brand being at the center of attention in such a big way again.

“Barbie has survived as a brand through constant reinvention. The original doll was inspired by a German prostitute, then became the ultimate icon of the patriarchy’s ideal woman (blonde, white, thin, sexy yet pure),” she said.

While she loves the 2023 Barbie as a feminist icon, she noted, “We went head-to-head with her parent company Mattel on the schoolyard back in the late 1990s, when a group of writers and I dared to challenge the institutionalized ‘isms’ that Barbie so perfectly represented.”

I’m not vehemently anti-Barbie. I had a handful of Barbies when I was little, although I remember my mom encouraging me to play with other dolls too — ones that represented more of our diverse world and more realistic human proportions. I have two daughters, and when they were younger and wanted to play with Barbies, I let them, but I never bought any. The Barbies and their accessories were always hand-me-downs from family and friends.

I didn’t discourage my daughters from playing with them, because their play revolved more around designing and making clothes for them out of whatever fabric they could get their hands on, rather than wanting to be them. To my daughters, Barbie was a mannequin for their fashion creations, not an idol.

Maybe the Barbie movie is as witty and smart as everybody says it is, but I’m not about to boost Mattel’s Barbie earnings — even if the movie is a feminist take and is full of actors I like to see on screen.

When Mattel sued Seal Press, nobody actually thought “Adiós, Barbie” was going to hurt its product. By the time the corporation filed the lawsuit, the book had been out in the world for a year. The decision-makers at Mattel just knew they had ample corporate and legal muscle, so they decided to flex it.

Mattel argued that Seal Press used the trademark and elements of the “trade dress” “with the intent to trade on the enormous goodwill Mattel has earned in its Barbie products and to deceive and confuse the public into believing that ‘Adiós, Barbie’ is or was directly sponsored by, approved by, or otherwise associated with Mattel and its official licensees,” the complaint said, according to a 1999 issue of Feminist Bookstore News.

The accusation that we were trying to deceive or confuse the public doesn’t seem like “enormous goodwill” to me. Someone who walked into a bookstore and saw “Adiós, Barbie: Young Women Write About Body Image and Identity” on the cover of the book would think it was sponsored by Mattel? I don’t think so.

The message to all of us young women contributors was, essentially, that we couldn’t say what we wanted to say about ourselves and our feminism. And our book cover couldn’t have hot pink on it.

I don’t want to rain on anyone’s new feminist Barbie parade. And I don’t wish Barbie ill. I applaud whatever journey toward reality and self-discovery she’s on. But I’m not about to stand in line to bring her a gift.