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barbie then and now
by candy green gustavson

"What," I heard the radio personality ask, "do you think is the #1 high school graduation present for young women?"

Breast implants was the answer. I was sure it was nose jobs, but this is just another way for me to know I'm getting older. As someone who has kind of taken pride in being hip, I didn't see this news coming, but I should have---more than 33 years ago.

In 1976 I took a 10-day trip to Israel on an Arab tour using Air Jordan. We flew from New York City to London. It was my first time off the North American continent, the first time I had used my passport--in those days you could go to Mexico and Canada without one. I was suddenly and suprisingly aware of being an American; I was self-conscious in a new way.

Added to this, as it was the year of America's 200th birthday, the passengers watched the musical "1776" as we crossed the Atlantic. It seemed I would be travelling back in time, first to England, America's motherland of sorts, then half way across the world, passing over Greece, the originator of democracy, before nestling down in the cradle of civilization, the Middle East.

Queen Alia of Jordan was on board. A stewardness came down the aisle informing us we would see her soon and then ceremoniously drew open the curtains separating the classes of economy and first. Queen Alia came and stood for a few minutes in the doorway. She posed there, almost requiring that we observe her. Word quickly spread around the compartment--a queen was in our midst--or rather, we were in the midst of a queen! I suppose I could have gone and asked for her autograph, but I stayed in my seat, staring. So did everyone else.

Having spent the previous several hours pondering the American Revolution and the airport in London, England, with its own Queen, Elizabeth II, I felt my independent American spirit rising and resisting the thought of anyone as more than my equal. I couldn't have known that within a year Queen Alia would lose her life in a helicopter crash in Amman, the very place our shared plane was headed at that very moment.

When we landed in Amman, I burst out crying at the sight of robed and looking-like-Jesus men roaming around the airport with rifles and bandoleers. I was on my way to the Holy Land, for Heaven's sake!

Our tour group spent the first night in Amman--at that time a low and dusty city. The next day I rode a stallion down into Petra and heard our taxi driver ask, "Have you seen our king?"

It was happening again! I could hear in his voice the respect that makes it all right for a leader to live a life of luxury with most of the population in privation. What is it with this awe for kings and queens, I thought?

Recently, President Obama has come under friendly fire for this very question. For some, he bowed too low when showing respect to the Emperor of Japan. We Americans don't bow our knee to anyone--but God, so some of us say. We don't want to be idolators--you know, have any kind of idols. Right?

When we got to Israel, it was great to see the sights, to see the mountains, roads, cities that had only been names to me before. But some condition familiar to world travelers was beginning in me: the struggle to connect the past to the present with the remaining evidence.

Call the evidence "ruins," if you will, or artefacts, the stuff of archeology--whatever man has made that gives some idea of past cultures and the people who once lived wherever we are visiting. The earth and its vegetation are familiar, but the ancient people who had once lived there have left their marks, their footprints.

One of these marks was the appearance and reappearance of a small sculpture, an artefact, an idol to a goddess. She seemed to make her appearance all over Galilee in particular. As I stared at the image one attribute was obvious: this idol had breasts. They were as hard and pointed as...as...? I knew these breasts. They were familiar. Whose were they?

Oh, yeah, they were Barbie's! Way back in America...way forward in time. It was Barbie's ancester Astarte or, perhaps, Asherah, both goddesses of the Caananites who lived in these lands before the Israelites.

Much of the evidence of these goddesses, part of a pantheon under the headship of first, El, and then Baal, is fragmented. Much of the mythology is mixed as one god supplanted another. Like most belief systems of agrarian societies, worship was tied to nature, fertility, flocks and herds and the coming of rains. These were the gods and peoples the Israelites were to drive out of the promised land. They were to worship and depend upon one God and Creator of all.

Earlier in Israel's history, when Moses showed his people this promised land, he told them they didn't need a king like other people did. God would be their king. Thousands of years later, our own George Washington would take inspiration from Moses when some of the new citizens of the United States of America wanted him to be their king.

However, these and the other ever-changing gods and goddesses of this part of the earth were the ones the children of Israel couldn't drive out. That's why, in Israel in 1976, I was seeing these artifacts on display.

After Moses and then Joshua had helped the Israelites enter into the land there came a time when Israel was ruled by Judges. In about as much time as it took for a young girl to mature and grow breasts, the Hebrew culture would be overcome by the culture of their enemies. They couldn't drive out of the land. They would be ruled over by them for, again, about as much time as it took a young girl to mature and grow breasts. Then the nation of Israel would find strength, rise up, overthrow the enemy--and the cycle would begin again.

Finally, they cried out to God for their own king--they wanted to be like the people around them--and God answered with Saul, first, and then King David and his lineage. Of course, these were men and not gods and ruled imperfectly. But, the people had their king! They, too, could now say, "Have you seen our king?"

Kings have queens. Gods have goddesses...and so it goes.

As I pondered Astarte/Asherah there in Israel in 1976, the year of America's bicentiennial, I knew America didn't have a king, but did we have gods, goddesses, idols? What would America look like if and when it fell into ruin and passed into history? What would be found buried in our earth, under our homes? What would our artifacts be?

Astarte/Asherah certainly looked like Barbie. And Barbies could certainly be buried in abundance in the soil of our land. It was very possible that thousands of years from now someone digging up these Barbies could believe we worshipped them. They would be much evidence to link Barbies to Astarte/Asherah in a very academic way.

Fast forward. In 2005, I did a CELTA course in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. There was some free time to spend on the beach. One day a young woman emerged from the foam of the ocean--like Aphrodite of Greecian mythology who was created from the castrated parts of the banished Ourano/Uranus. Oh my, she was lovely in face and form. Her bare breasts were perfect. They stuck out just like Astarte's---just like Barbie's.

Am I, at long last, I wondered, seeing what breast implants look like in person?

Aloof and definitely unapproachable, this Diana came closer and laid down on a towel near me. Another question I had always wondered about was answered: those breasts don't lie down for anyone. They stay up like identical twin mountain peaks. Just like Astarte's, just like Barbie's.

Similarities...and differences.

One of the differences is that our idols are NOT about fertility, cycles of life and death or the passing of seasons. They are about NOT being fruitful and multiplying. They aren't coming from a culture whose idols are made of wood or clay, or even metal.

They are about plastic--something that melts with a fervent heat.


late bloomer, fontanelle of the baby boomers...full of hope, believing in life-long learning, mentoring, doors opening...mother of four, grandma of one: I cultivate gardens in both hemispheres of earth and brain...

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