When I got back from Afghanistan, one of my favorite things to do was go to Wal-Mart.
Honestly, I liked going to any store. On leave, I spent two hours wandering around a Mexican supermarket staring at all the products. But Wal-Mart was so big, so overpowering; everything you could ever need, right there, instantly yours. I've never been much of a shopper, and if you'd told me before that I'd ever love Wal-Mart more than any other place on earth, I might have thought you a bit mad. But if you'd told me that my very favorite aisle in all of that megalopolis of capitalism would be the Barbie aisle, the conversation would have pretty much been over.
I was never much for Barbie either. My mother did not like Barbie, and although I'm sure she would have allowed me to play with Barbie had I been so inclined, I got the distinct impression that Barbie was not the sort of toy I should play with. With her bizarre proportions and her bland, plastic smile, Barbie is the epitome of the brainless female: their mascot, their queen. I was no Barbie girl. I was a tomboy and all my friends were boys: we pulled the heads off of Barbies and played in the dirt instead.
When I grew old enough to understand gender stereotypes better, I was even more anti-Barbie. I was never going to be that girl. I joined the Army. I tried to make a real point of carrying my weight: volunteering for shitty jobs, showing that I could do anything boys can. I went dutch on dates, I didn’t own a hair dryer or a curling iron, I pinned a boy who smacked my ass against the wall and told him I’d kill him if he ever did it again. I sang “Barbie Girl” at Karaoke...but only if I got to do Ken’s part. Barbie: that shallow, materialistic slut. Barbie: with a porn-star body and a disney-princess mind.
And then I went to Afghanistan.
The Army hires locals to do almost any unpleasant task that must be done and can be outsourced: build buildings, do the laundry, clean our buildings, cook our food. And sometimes they’d bring their sons along. Only sons, and only fathers. The few missions I went on, I looked out the MRAP windows at a market street bustling with men: shopping, sitting, talking. There were little girls during one humanitarian mission, but no one older. Once, I saw a woman. Like a black ghost in her burkha, trailing behind her husband as the sun set. Far in the distance. It was the only time.
I saw the way they looked at me. At any of the handful of girls on base. We were an oasis of womanhood after a long drought, even in our ACUs and body armor. The locals who did the laundry stole my underwear once. Granny panties, all of it: the least sexy kind of underwear in existence. But it didn’t matter: they wanted it. We were women: real, live women. I imagine it's what we might feel watching a panda walk through Times Square.
Can you imagine exchanging wartime intelligence for a Playboy magazine? Every Human Intelligence team worth their salt over there keeps a stash of porn magazines, because nothing in that barren land of corruption, terrorism, and opium builds rapport like a naked, smiling woman.
Even the Taliban have porn--but sometimes very different from our airbrushed Barbie-girls. A video captured on a Talib: a woman dancing for a group of men, Bollywood music, shaking her hips. It goes on for about ten minutes. Then, suddenly, the men are following her. And suddenly, she is being gang-raped. And then she is decapitated. The production values aren’t great, because it’s a home movie. It’s real.
When you’re stuck in a windowless room for twelve hours a day, seven days a week, for a year, you get bored. So you read the news. You read about the girl in Iran, or Afghanistan, or whichever Islamic nation it is this time, who is to be stoned for adultery. For being raped. For whatever. You get reports of honor killings, and then you read a story about honor killings in Germany.
All this comes together over time and suddenly, it is an act of defiance to be a woman. To have breasts, to be slender with long hair and lips. The 82nd is full of men who aren’t sure if they want to fuck you or get you out of the unit or just make your life miserable: they’ll settle for all three after six months in the desert if you’ll let them. The locals are more polite to your face, but may just steal your underwear behind your back: theirs is the same basic conflict on a deeper and more religious level. You make sure to never bend over at the waist. You avoid casual touch, just in case. You order your sports bras a size too small and your shirts a size too big. You ignore it. You do your job. You live your life.
And eventually, the deployment ends and you come back to America and you go to Wal-Mart just to look at all the stuff you can buy and watch the people with their children buying stuff and you end up in the toy aisle and Barbie is there. Staring back at you.
Barbie, with her beautiful, curvy figure. Barbie, with her designer handbag and power suits and princess dresses. Barbie with her big house and beautiful life. Barbie, sold separately from Ken. Barbie, with her plastic smile: happy and unafraid. Shopping Barbie can drive herself to the mall in her pink convertible. Dancing Princess Barbie can dance without getting her head pulled off by Ken afterwards. Barbie doesn’t have to worry about honor killings, or looking at a man the wrong way: she is free to be fun and sexy, free to be sexual, free to be a woman.
It is not that way everywhere. Meet Sila Sahin: Muslim, Turkish, a soap opera star, and topless on this month’s Playboy magazine cover in Germany. She is beautiful, and the poses are exquisite. "I would kill her.”, a kebab shop owner stated when asked what his reaction would be if his daughter were to pose for such photos. “I really mean that. That doesn't fit with my culture." Islamic extremists have posted death threats on multiple websites against Sahin, calling her a “Western Slut” and stating that “she must pay”. In our culture of easily accessible pornography and erotica, it’s easy to forget that there are many places in the world where the act of baring yourself, the act of being beautiful, is not just a publicity stunt or a way to make money but an act of defiance. Sila Sahin is risking her life by doing what she has done. She is a hero in her own right.
There’s a lot more to being a woman than being beautiful. But beauty and sexuality are part of being a woman. We take for granted the right to walk down the street displaying cleavage or wearing high heels: the right to be beautiful in whatever way resonates most with us. Our bodies are beautiful things: why shouldn’t we be proud to own them? Why shouldn’t a woman be both sexual and brilliant? The true feminist fight is the fight to be a complete and whole person, and that includes the right to breasts and legs, to waists and hips and heels. The right to our bodies. The right to embrace everything Barbie has to offer, without fear.