Life & Culture

I’m celebrating my Barbie-style foobs

To quote a fellow breast cancer buddy who’s ahead of me on this journey, sit as high and round as those on a Barbie doll


I had my bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction a couple of weeks ago now, and at my most recent doctor’s appointment — on Yom Kippur, but I feel I can be forgiven for going — I got a glimpse of my new chest as the nurse changed my bandages. The area is a bit scabby, but the scars are healing nicely, and my fake boobs, or foobs, to quote a fellow breast cancer buddy who’s ahead of me on this journey, sit as high and round as those on a Barbie doll — if a great deal smaller, when scaled to size.

I can’t say I ever dreamed about looking like Barbie (I was the kid who cut Barbie’s hair in jagged lines and drew tattoos on her body with Sharpees). But Barbie was meant to be aspirational. As the new Greta Gerwig film reminds us, she had (and keep in mind she was invented in 1959): her own money, her own house, her own car, her own career. She also had her beautiful breasts. “Every little girl needed a doll through which to project herself into her dream of her future. If she was going to do role playing of what she would be like when she was 16 or 17, it was a little stupid to play with a doll that had a flat chest,” creator Ruth Handler told the New York Times in 1977. “So, I gave it beautiful breasts.”

Unlike Handler, I don’t believe a woman has to have beautiful breasts; in fact, I cringe at the idea of young girls even being exposed to such sexist, body-shaming, and cis-gender notions of womanhood. Still, Handler was a product of her time, and however misguided she might have been in some of her ideas, she understood that girls and women ought to and need to feel good about themselves. This comes out in the film in a very 2023 way in the “Somehow we’re always doing it wrong” speech that real-human character Gloria gives.

It also comes out in the trajectory of Handler’s career. Handler lived her life, as she used to say, “from breast to breast.” Playing the Jewish creator’s ghost, Rhea Perlman comments on Handler’s appearance, saying, “You think the lady who invented Barbie looks like Barbie? I’m a five-foot-nothing Gramma with a double mastectomy.” It turns out that Handler, while still at Mattel, was diagnosed with breast cancer. In 1970, she underwent a radical mastectomy (single, not double). In the wake of her mastectomy, Handler found it impossible to source a breast replacement that looked and felt good (the first mastectomy with immediate reconstruction with implants occurred in 1971). So, being an inventor, she invented one! Her artificial breasts were made of silicone and foam, and she apparently dared reporters to feel each of her breasts to see if they could tell which one was real.

I love that the creator of Barbie ran a breast prosthesis company. If once she wanted to make something for girls, later she wanted to make something for the women they had become. In both cases, she found a use for artificial breasts. Handler’s company never turned much of a profit, but she was proud of it. Among the women she fitted for “Nearly Me” breasts was First Lady Betty Ford. She also became an advocate for breast cancer testing.

Barbie might not be an inspiration for me — but Handler is.

As for my Barbie foobs, I might not be able to keep them. In a few weeks, I’ll get a series of test results. Will my lymph nodes be clear? Is there evidence of cancer outside of the known tumour? How aggressive was the cancer? Among other possibilities, there is a chance that I will require radiotherapy, which does not, sadly, play nicely with implants.

But if I do get to keep them —or as long as I do — I am going to appreciate them. As a woman who is nearing  50 and nursed three babies, I have not been able to don strapless or backless outfits in a long, long time. I’m also someone who changes into pyjamas the minute she gets home, happy to be freed of the restrictive undergarments I feel compelled to wear out in the world. For now, I’m stuck in a post-surgery compression contraption, but the idea of being able to go braless sounds utterly delightful. Unencumbered and cancer-free — surely, that is the very definition of beautiful breasts.

Come on, Barbie. Let’s go party!

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