The Epigenetics of Barbie: a short story by Ann Epstein
My five-year-old niece June wears a 24-E bra. Not to play dress-up, but because she needs one to support her breasts. Mellie, who is my sister and June’s mother, blames me because I gave June a Barbie doll two months ago. That’s when her mammary development began. You see, my niece has been assuming the characteristics of toys and games since she was born. For example, her eyes took on the Calder-like shapes and swivel movements of the wind-up mobile above her crib.
I insist, however, that June’s tendency to become like her playthings is Mellie’s fault, not mine. As a kid, my sister threw herself body and soul into whatever captured her interest. Scientific research in the field of epigenetics shows that such childhood behavior, especially if it occurs before puberty, can be passed down a generation or two. It doesn’t change an offspring’s DNA, but it affects how those genes are expressed. This appears to be the case with Mellie and June.
Here’s some compelling evidence. During Mellie’s hula hoop phase, it took her forever to walk across a room because she paused every two steps to gyrate her hips. That behavior could explain why June has never walked in a straight line. Her butt swivelled beginning at age two. Even as a toddler, she displayed precociously good balance, a skill Mellie had practiced years to perfect.
There’s more proof. When my sister turned ten, her passion switched to painting. Not only did Mellie fill huge canvases, she unconsciously stroked walls and tables as if to imprint them with her artistic vision. Sure enough, June was born with furred fingernails, like high quality sable brushes. She licks the tips and leaves swirly marks on counter tops and window panes.
Studies show epigenetic manifestations intensify with each generation. So it’s the grandsons, even more than the sons, of men who ate fatty diets in childhood with high rates of obesity and diabetes. This pattern holds in our family as well. Mellie’s and my mom was an avid opera fan and sports buff whose vibrato echoed down the ski slopes. The flexibility of her vocal cords and knees never changed though. By contrast, Mellie’s passions caused obvious physical effects.
The difference the next generation down is that while Mellie’s acquired traits were temporary – she stopped gyrating and stroking when her obsessions waned – June’s anomalies are permanent. They’re part of her cellular makeup. Mellie’s skeptical of the science, but she’s still filled with guilt and wishes she’d been into something less distinctive as a kid, like reading. I said if she had, June might have been born with papery skin covered in print. Or a spine made of glue. Mellie said I was being ridiculous, and that my mind only worked that way because I’d never been as good in school as she was. I admit Mellie was the better student, but I have to believe what I see.
Another case in point. My sister and I had lots of pets growing up and June’s fond of animals too. When she was three, she liked to pretend she was a dog. After Mellie rented the classic movie Topper, with the huge St. Bernard who wears a brandy keg around its neck, my niece’s hands grew as disproportionately large as puppy paws. Her furry fingernails could paint a sheet of construction paper in two strokes. She also developed a fondness for Calvados and fastened her Little Mermaid lunch box around her throat with a leather thong. Mellie put a lock on the liquor cabinet, though she needn’t have bothered. June’s oversized, hairy appendages couldn’t turn the door handle or open the bottle. She only drank when she saw me pour a glass for myself. Luckily, June’s early taste for alcohol went away, but Mellie worries it will come back in her teens.
I’m sympathetic to Mellie’s maternal concerns, but frankly, I envy my niece’s uncanny ability to inhabit her pretend characters. I’d give anything to have been on the receiving end of this genetic inheritance, but I missed out. I’m an actress by temperament and training, and even though my life and career are more soap opera than legitimate theater, I consider myself a serious student of the profession. I believe in full immersion in a role, even off the set. Like the time I increased the circumference of my calves to seventeen inches for a part in a biopic about women’s wrestling.
Given that Mellie’s intense personality is akin to mine – I may not have inherited the ability to metamorphose but our genes do overlap – you think she’d feel the same way I do about June’s unique talent to transform herself. But my sister argues that whereas her own interests led her to develop valuable lifelong skills, June’s and my devotion to authenticity is frivolous. She claims the qualities we cultivate are not worth acquiring in the first place, let alone keeping forever.
I resent Mellie’s judgmental attitude, although I understand her anxiety about June’s more bizarre physical traits. After all, she’s the girl’s mother and I’m not. Still, I’m close enough to my niece to be her second mom, so my feelings ought to count for something.
And I do try to be helpful. Once, in an effort to persuade Mellie to see the brighter side of June’s situation, I bought my niece a picture book about Vincent van Gogh. It seemed like a good way to take advantage of the artistry in her epigenetic inheritance. As I’d hoped, June fell in love with his self-portrait and made herself a goatee of red yarn. Alas, she then grew real chin whiskers.
“That’s just like you,” Mellie screamed. “You never think through the consequences of your actions. If I hadn’t thrown out the Slinky you gave June, her vertebrae would have collapsed!”
I bristled at the accusation. “I did so anticipate any negative outcome from the book. I made sure it didn’t show the painting van Gogh made of himself after he lopped off his ear.”
Mellie wasn’t pacified. She declared that henceforth June could do art activities only once a month, and it had to be under her supervision. She forbid ceramics, lest June spin obsessively like a potter’s wheel. Ditto a ban on weaving. She wouldn’t tolerate June flying back and forth like a shuttle. Mellie wanted June to cultivate other interests. She herself had relegated painting to a mere pastime by her sixteenth birthday, when social justice became her passion. She turned her energy to feminism, where it has stayed ever since. My lack of political correctness irks her.
Which explains why, even before June’s boobs grew, my sister was so pissed when I gave her the doll. She saw me as challenging her maternal prerogative to mold her daughter’s values. In her mind, political beliefs were determined solely by the environment, not by innate predispositions. And since Mellie turned feminist after puberty, even I agreed that epigenetics wasn’t likely to have any effect. Of course, that was before I saw Barbie change June’s mind as well as her body.
June’s father, by the way, did not enter into this tug of war. His political views were a cipher. My niece was conceived by artificial insemination, so other than the man’s ability to reach orgasm in a clinical setting, little was known of his social contributions to his daughter’s consciousness.
That meant the two adults responsible for raising June were Mellie and me, the feminist versus the girly girl. The battle for June’s political soul was going to be fought in the playroom.
At first, June’s interest in the doll took weird turns, and Mellie declared victory. My niece gave Barbie’s luxuriant blond tresses a punk haircut and dyed it rainbow hues with scented markers.
“Looks like your niece has rejected the objectification of beauty,” Mellie crowed with pride.
Next June twisted off the doll’s arms and legs. My sister, momentarily panicked, reinserted them in their sockets before any visible damage occurred to her daughter’s limbs. Mellie glared at me with the same self-righteous anger that had flared when she averted the Slinky spinal disaster.
My sister resumed gloating when her daughter used Barbie to emulate her mother’s life.
“Have you noticed how June pretends Barbie is exhausted from juggling career, housework, and child rearing?” Mellie needled me. “She already gets how tough it is for women.”
“And have you noticed the bags under my niece’s eyes?” I countered. “Or the way she snaps that she’s too tired when you ask her to help you do the dishes?” June used to love washing things in the sink. Now I could envision the impatient snarl on her lips becoming a permanent expression.
Concerned, I asked June if she wanted me to buy her a Ken doll to help lighten Barbie’s load, but she said he’d only be a useless lump of plastic. Mellie felt validated by this response and decided Barbie wasn’t such a bad gift after all. The doll was teaching June valuable lessons.
“I guess your attempt to sabotage my feminist agenda backfired,” she triumphed. “Chalk up a win for June’s mother and a resounding defeat for her aunt!” Her smirk was like the look she’d give me as kids after she’d plunked a hotel atop Boardwalk on the Monopoly board.
“Not so fast,” I defended myself. The extremist liberated attitudes my niece was forming weren’t healthy and would make her antisocial. “She’ll fail ‘plays well with others,’” I warned my sister.
Mellie snorted. Her daughter’s emerging consciousness and sympathy for overworked, underpaid women was just fine with her, as was June’s well-founded resentment toward men.
“Keep your oppressed values to yourself and butt out!” was her less-than-gracious declaration of victory. The conviction she was right was only affirmed when June demanded that from now on Mellie pay her to help with household chores. And my niece wouldn’t settle for minium wage!
Mellie’s relief and pride were short-lived, however. June’s single-minded attention soon shifted to Bikini Barbie’s exaggerated womanliness. If anything, my sister’s feminist enthusiasm had a contrarian effect on her daughter. It was at this point that June began to grow breasts and walk on tiptoe. She refused to wear anything but dresses and declared her favorite color was pink.
At first Mellie reacted by modeling the tired, under-dressed, man-disparaging mother to the hilt, and egging June to copy her. In defiance, the changes in June’s body escalated. I almost reminded my sister what a contrary child she’d been too, but things were so tense between us by then that I kept my mouth shut. Mellie, on the other hand, was quick to remind me how I’d stuffed tissues in the top of my bathing suit at age eight and tripped around the house in our mother’s spike heels.
My sister’s outrage grew along with her daughter’s breasts and the arch of her puppy paw feet. To make matters worse, June acquired these adult characteristics at the same time she retained her little-girl pot belly. Her chest, heels, and stomach all tipped her body precariously forward, and she complained of severe backaches. Mellie consulted a doctor who said breast reduction surgery couldn’t be performed until June finished growing, a fifteen-year wait. In the meantime, he advised Mellie to buy June padded platform shoes and ultra-thick flattening sports bras.
“You caused this problem. You solve it!” my sister fumed at me. She added that if she’d been able to afford child care, she would have forbidden me from watching June while she worked. For all her feminist rhetoric, Mellie is the low woman on the totem pole of an office typing pool.
“You’re lucky June’s aunt is an unemployed actress who renders you her services for free,” I tried to reclaim the high ground.
“Aunt is the operative word here,” Mellie shot back. “Stop playing the part of Co-Mom.”
Despite my antagonism toward my sister, seeing my niece tipped forward in pain filled me with remorse. Eventually, my anti-Mellie rivalry abated too. I had to admit she was right. I was better at inventing play ideas than I was at anticipating how they’d play out.
To make amends, I set to work finding special shoes and clothing for June. It was easy locating size-one platform heels. It turns out lots of kids have orthopedic problems. Finding bras was trickier. Maidenform’s special order department custom-made them for post-mastectomy women and transgendered men, but they’d never designed one for a child’s narrow chest hung with a zaftig woman’s breasts. In the end, they were able to scale down a model for early maturing girls.
At the same time I was regretting the fallout of my girly gift to June, my sister’s feelings shifted the opposite way. She became more sympathetic to Barbie’s feminizing influence on June. Call it maternal devotion, but Mellie couldn’t sustain her animus to her daughter’s playtime obsessions. Not that my sister abandoned her feminist principles. Instead, she softened them to accommodate June’s desires. There was nothing wrong with wanting to grow breasts and appear attractive, she told her daughter. Successful career women knew how to use their looks to their advantage.
Based on this reasoning, Mellie was pleased when June’s role play evolved from Bikini Barbie to Career Barbie, though she got rattled when my niece declared her intention to become president of a Fortune 500 company. My sister pictured her daughter’s skin turning money-green and her heart hardening to steel. Yet she continued to support June’s play, even buying her and the doll matching briefcases. She was grooming June to become a civil rights lawyer. She also asked me to find a pair of size-one high-heeled tennis shoes that my niece could wear on protest marches. They had to be pink, however, because she now fully accepted that it was June’s favorite color.
Perhaps, Mellie also suggested, I could ask Maidenform to make June sexier bras. In black lace.
Much as I wanted to be optimistic about the efficacy of my sister’s change in attitude, I doubted she could redirect June’s corporate role play, stylish or otherwise, toward socially responsible causes. In fact, I feared continued Barbie play would only heap more injury on June’s growing body and further skew her moral compass. After all, Mellie’s right that it’s society, not genes, that keeps women down. June had to learn to fend for herself in this male-dominated world, and it would take more than my sister’s example. It was also my responsibility to make June strong.
I decided to take advantage of epigenetics to help me achieve this goal.
That determination brought me back to women’s wrestling. One reason I’d auditioned for the biopic was my fascination with the sport as a child. I loved the women’s alliterative names – Medusa Miceli and Magnificent Mimi. Behind my sister’s back, I used to call her Macho Mellie whenever she bossed me around. My favorite wrestler was the powerful Peggy Lee Leather, later called Thug, who won the steel cage match against Selena Majors, a.k.a. Bambi, in 2001.
Thug was the ultimate biker girl who perfected the inward belly flop to land on opponents and squash them. Her 20-inch biceps left ample room for sentence-long tattoos. “You’d rather kiss a rattlesnake than mess with me,” Thug’s upper right arm boasted, while the left threatened “I’ll whack you with a pool cue and step over your body to drink your beer.” She won the match against Bambi by disabling her leg with a steel chair and following up with a choke slam.
The sport’s heyday was in the 80s and 90s, but I’m convinced new-wave feminism will spark a resurgence. Women’s wrestling was added to the summer Olympics in 2004, and today lots of high schools and colleges offer it as a varsity sport. If June starts training now, she’ll have an advantage by the time she’s a teenager. She won’t need a steel chair to break an opponent’s leg.
I checked out today’s women wrestlers on the web last night. Like me, June will be dazzled by their shiny Lycra leotards. The stretchy fabric means finding uniforms to cover her large breasts won’t be a problem. On the contrary, her protruding boobs will keep competitors at a distance. The women wrestle barefoot or in sequined pantyhose, so she won’t even need custom-made shoes. She can reach up to trap an opponent in a head lock more easily than flat-footed girls.
Her skin might even spontaneously sprout tattoos without her suffering the pain of dye-injecting needles. I imagine my niece applying her artistic talents to create bloody images and threatening messages on her muscular forearms and wide-stance thighs: “Flo the Fur-Fingered Fighter! Inventor of the van Gogh Ear Slice. Brushes foes off the canvas like so much watercolor.”
Here’s the scientific reality. Epigenetics has already primed June’s body for this feminist-friendly sport. And although I don’t want to encourage more doll play, there’s even a tie-in with a Barbie outfit. Mattel makes a one-shouldered spangly pink unitard and calf-high gold lame butt-kicking boots for the doll. I’m sure I could try my hand at sewing a matching outfit for my niece.
I’ve thought about unanticipated consequences and concluded that nothing can go amiss with my plan. Just wait until I tell Mellie. I predict she’ll share my enthusiasm for making her girl buff and tough. For once, my sister and I will be in agreement about what’s best for our little June.
Ann S. Epstein’s writing includes short stories, novels, and creative nonfiction, and has been published in Emrys Journal, Clark Street Review, Passages North, Red Rock Review, William and Mary Review, theNewerYork, Long Story, Sewanee Review, and Tahoma Literary Review. In addition to creative writing, she has a Ph.D. in developmental psychology and M.F.A. in textiles. The social sciences and visual arts infuse the content and imagery of her writing. Many of her stories have historical settings in which fact and fiction are liberally mixed, and she is gratified to have forgotten what is and is not real by the time a work is finished. Her nonfiction explores the forces that shape us, especially the unexpected residue left by family members and friends.