July 25, 2024

Styles Extension

A Touch of Style, Undeniable Elegance

‘Cut and Style’ Barbie gave me the queerest moment of my childhood

6 min read

I attempted to give myself a haircut when I was 4. Technically, it was a personal choice, but nearly 30 years later, I continue to attribute the idea to Mattel.

I grew up in a multigenerational home where my bed was just feet from my mom and dad’s. In an effort to give me a sense of “privacy,” my mom used several of my Disney-branded sheets to construct a tent-like structure over my sleeping space. It made me feel cool, invincible, and like I could do anything. Around that same time, I received the iconic Cut and Style Barbie Doll by Mattel, featuring safety scissors, several sets of hair extensions, a plastic hairbrush, and some hair accessories.

Mad with power in my new “room,” I quickly exhausted most of Barbie’s hair extensions. So I did the next logical thing: I contemplated the doll’s accompanying safety scissors, and then took them to my own very long hair. Although Barbie’s hair didn’t technically “grow back” when I cut it, and I had to attach extensions to return her preset hair to something like its original length, this ability made me believe wholeheartedly that my own hair would somehow grow back instantly if I cut it. In hindsight, I was simply tired of always being told “no” whenever I asked for haircuts because my grandparents thought long hair was “more feminine.”

There were a few core issues with my attempt to buck the system: I could only really cut some of my hair, due to poor reach and not being ambidextrous. I also didn’t have a mirror in my sheet fort, which meant I couldn’t even see what I was doing. But the most pressing issue, in hindsight, was that I didn’t ask for permission. It certainly wouldn’t have been granted — which would have spared me the heartache of family members criticizing my appearance. But it might have also cheated me out of an experience that now feels quintessentially queer, and one that helped me think about gender expression in a new way.

Blond hair Barbie dolls arranged in a circle

Photo: Yuriko Nakao/Getty Images

A few minutes into the haircutting process, I realized my mistake and crawled out of my bed already crying — not because I had cut my hair, but because of what it meant. I knew I would get in trouble and I did. As my paternal grandmother took scissors to my now-chin-length hair to even it out, she lectured my mom for leaving me unattended and repeatedly asked me why I wanted to have such short hair. She told me I made myself “look like a boy.” (No one acknowledged the irony that she had sported a shoulder-length cut ever since I could remember.) I cried through the entire haircut and wore a denim bucket hat to preschool the next day. When my teacher asked if I had gotten a haircut and complimented me on it, I became completely inconsolable. This happened whenever someone mentioned my hair for a long time after.

I didn’t ask for a haircut for years and let my hair grow until it reached my waist. Whenever the subject of my hair did come up, even after I began sporting a shoulder-length cut in middle school, my family would loudly insist that “long hair was feminine” and ask variations on “Do you want to look like a boy?” What they didn’t know was that the older I got, the more I realized I liked other girls, and I was terrified of being a fat lesbian because I thought it meant I would have to present as butch. “Looking like a boy” was the furthest thing from my mind.

In the 1994 commercial for Cut and Style Barbie (which stars a pre-Nickelodeon Amanda Bynes), the doll boasts short hair, long hair, and even Annie Lennox-inspired spiky hair. At no point does she appear less “feminine” — instead, the commercial offered me a chance to see how gender norms and gender presentation aren’t binary. Barbie could have long or short hair and still be a femme icon. (Though Barbie, of course, has since been criticized for upholding utterly impossible beauty standards. Mattel has even redesigned the doll to make her body more realistic.)

I think my choice to cut my hair was both an attempt to feel some kind of kinship with Barbie, and a radical move toward achieving bodily autonomy. My mom, who wasn’t even 22 when I was 4, didn’t seem particularly bothered beyond wanting me to have an even-looking haircut. But some members of my family reacted so dramatically that now, I can’t help but think of this experience as the first time I experienced queerphobia — even though as a preschooler, I didn’t know what queerness was or that I would eventually come to identify as a lesbian.

Margot Robbie attends the red carpet promoting the upcoming film “Barbie” at the Warner Bros. Pictures Studio presentation during CinemaCon on April 25, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada

Photo: Greg Doherty/WireImage

Barbie is arguably one of the most heterosexual icons in pop culture history. Her on-again, off-again relationship with Ken is recognizable the world over. It’s also a central point of the upcoming Barbie movie directed by Greta Gerwig — even if their relationship as portrayed by Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling is at least somewhat rooted in blatant irritation, as seen in the trailer. Despite this, millions of queer kids have grown up playing with Barbies and exploring questions of identity and social dynamics through that play. Like many AFAB people born in the early ’90s, I made my Barbie dolls kiss whenever my family wasn’t looking. I had my two favorite Barbie dolls share the single bed in the 1995 Barbie Travelin’ House and play-acted them saying “I love you” when they “moved in together.”

Still, cutting my own hair might have been the queerest thing I ever did as a child. Without Cut and Style Barbie, the idea likely wouldn’t have occurred to me. I was a well-behaved kid with no siblings who struggled to make friends in preschool because I was fat and weird and, I’ll admit, more than a little bossy.

After the haircut incident, I played up femininity — or at least what my family defined as femininity — even though it didn’t feel completely right. I even got “engaged” to a preschool classmate named Paul who gave me a Ring Pop in my favorite flavor (red) to mark the occasion. That also got me in trouble because it “wasn’t appropriate” for me to like boys. These mixed messages made it hard for me to understand how I was supposed to look and act, and I became wildly paranoid about how I played with my Barbie dolls and whether anyone in my family would catch me and get mad. Making two girl dolls kiss seemed shameful. Wasn’t Barbie supposed to be with Ken? Would I be scolded for making them kiss the way I was scolded for thinking about liking boys when Paul and I exchanged promises not to be mean to each other?

Looking back on that confusing and traumatic period, I recognize how 4-year-old me attempted to figure out who she was through the best approximations she had for adults outside of her family. My relationship with my looks was deeply rooted in that single choice to take safety scissors to my hair. Until my early 20s, I continued to sport shoulder-length hair or longer because I wanted to be seen as feminine, especially because I was fat. Cut and Style Barbie advocated for self-expression. If my family had seen that, I might have had a much less painful relationship with myself.

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