By Emily J Weitz
Last week, 40,000 people liked “Bald and Beautiful Barbie” on Facebook. This week, it was up to 120,000. The social network giant has become a mechanism for grassroots change of all sorts, and this time it’s a movement to help children fighting cancer maintain a sense of pride.
Barbie’s flowing golden tresses may be one of her most obvious characteristics, but without them, she’s still Barbie. That’s what Wendy Tarlow, Sag Harbor resident, cancer fighter and administrator of the Facebook-page-gone-viral hopes.
The story of the bald Barbie began when the CEO of Mattel, Inc., the manufacturer of the 53-year-old iconic doll, had one bald Barbie made for a friend’s little girl, Genesis Reyes, a 4-year-old cancer patient on Long Island. Word of the story sparked Jane Bingham, a cancer patient from New Jersey, and Beckie Sypin, the California mother of a cancer patient, to create a Facebook page to try to get the doll made.
“I heard about it on Cancer Chicks, one of my Facebook groups,” says Tarlow. “I liked it and shared it and I saw they just weren’t getting very far. They had, maybe 40 ‘likes,’ so I asked if they wanted help.”
Tarlow, who has a background in fundraising and recently helped raise over $10,000 for Swim Across America for cancer research, has started tapping into other Facebook groups, particularly cancer pages for kids. News organizations across the country are reporting on Bald and Beautiful Barbie, and Mattel, said Tarlow, is under a lot of pressure to make this doll.
“You look at Mattel’s Facebook page now,” said Tarlow, “and it’s pages and pages of requests for this.” Posts like “Dear Mattel, Please consider making three bald Barbies named Hope, Faith and Charity…” to “Dear Mattel, If you don’t make a doll with no hair I’m sure some other company will. It would be dumb not to…” fill the responses on the company’s wall.
Facebook has been helpful for Tarlow since her own battle with cancer began.
“I used to think Facebook was ridiculous,” she says. “But when I was in and out of treatment, I was sick so much of the time and felt so alone, Facebook made me feel connected. There was only so much my family could hear. Most people dealing with cancer feel that family and friends don’t understand. They want to hear you’re doing well, not the bad news… Facebook connected me to other sources of support.”
In fact it was where she met and became friends with Bingham on the Cancer Chicks page. So it made sense that she went down that same avenue to reach out and raise awareness for this cause.
The first bald Barbie was made when little Genesis confessed that she “didn’t feel like a princess anymore,” according to Tarlow.
“What better way to make a child feel like a princess than to make a Barbie doll that looks like her,” she asked.
According to reports in media such as the Los Angeles Times and MSNBC, Mattel, Inc. is non-committal about actually producing a bald Barbie.
“Mattel appreciates and respects the passion that has been built up for the request for a bald Barbie doll,” Mattel told the Times. “As you might imagine, we receive hundreds of passionate requests for various dolls to be added to our collection. We take all of them seriously and are constantly exploring new and different dolls to be added to our line.”
Since the Bald and Beautiful Barbie campaign launched, a movement for a Bald GI Joe began as well, also organized by the women. Its manufacturer, Hasbro, has responded positively, claimed Tarlow, who said most of her time is now spent boosting that page’s viewership, although no promises have been made.
“I think just the fact that people have jumped on this bandwagon creates solidarity,” she said.
That solidarity, and that gathering behind a cause, has given Tarlow strength in the years since she was first diagnosed.
“It’s a f—— hard road,” she says. “But raising money gives me a sense of hope.”
She recalled when she was honored last year for her extraordinary contributions to Swim Across America.
“When I was brought up onstage and given a plaque along with another guy going through this, we hugged and cried,” she said.
The hope is that, if and when the Bald Barbie is made, proceeds will go to research children’s cancers.
“Mattel did a breast cancer Barbie two years ago,” Tarlow said. “That pink ribbon has raised enough money that they have found cures and treatments. But kids’ cancer is underfunded.”
According to the Children’s Cancer Fund of America, 46 children are diagnosed with cancer every day in this country. Cancer is still the number one disease killer of children.
“It’s time to get this doll made,” says Tarlow.
As she rallies behind the cause, Tarlow can’t help but think of Katy Stewart, the young Sag Harbor resident who lost her battle with cancer last year.
“I think of Katy, and all the supporters in this community,” she said. “If this doll was made when she was alive to see it, I would have been the first to go and give it to her.”