Look ma, Barbie can save a forest

Updated: Dec 08, 2019, 08:23 IST | Fiona Fernandez | Mumbai

After spending four decades raising awareness around the need to preserve tree canopies, a forest ecologist of Indian origin inspires Mattel to model the first Barbie after a green warrior

As a little girl, growing up in a suburb of Washington DC, Nalini Nadkarni was drawn towards climbing the maple trees in her yard. She was the only one among five siblings to attempt this. Treetops were her "place"— peaceful, fun and adventurous. "I loved to read books about women who were brave and independent, and who helped other people. Clara Barton, Florence Nightingale, Marie Curie..." she says in an email interview from Utah.

Her father, Moreshwar Vithal Nadkarni hailed from Thane. He arrived in America in 1946 where he met Goldie in New York City. "I was their third daughter, with two younger brothers. Boys always seemed to be more valued. I think that shaped the way I behaved—I was a tomboy; I enjoyed sport and preferred to climb trees rather than play with dolls." It's ironic then that Nadkarni has one of the world's most famous dolls modelled after her.

Look ma, Barbie can save a forest

A professor at the Department of Biology, University of Utah, Nadkarni made headlines recently when Mattel introduced the TreeTop Barbie inspired by her pioneering research in the field of tree canopies.

Her curiosity for nature was fuelled, she says, by programmes on National Geographic. She was hooked to shows that followed people who experienced different habitats to study animals, plants and cultures. "I aspired to protect forests, and become a forest ranger or a fire-fighter who could actively protect living trees," she says. But Nadkarni earned a doctoral degree in forest ecology from the University of Washington and focused on rainforest biology. "At that time, almost no one studied the forest canopy. And so it became my area of study for the rest of my academic career."

While her interest in trees began early, her travels for research made her realise that little girls and boys from urban cities didn't have access to trees in their backyard. And there was an acute shortage of role models. By then, Nadkarni had earned acclaim for raising awareness about forests with prison inmates, and for creating study programmes involving musicians and artists. She wanted to focus now on children, and had zeroed in on the ideal tool. "I understood that the toys that children played with influence the idea of who they want to become. An obvious example is the Barbie—she is popular across the world, and little girls want to 'be' Barbie. But, they also aspire to have her unrealistic body, and want to buy clothes and accessories for her, reinforcing consumerism, the exact opposite of what the world needs right now," she argues.

Look ma, Barbie can save a forest

Because little girls already value the Barbie, Nadkarni tried to shift the favouritism towards a more realistic image— The TreeTop Barbie, a doll that looks like the original, but dresses in field clothes, carries a crossbow, climbing rope, and a little handbook that describes the plants and animals that live in the rainforest canopy. "This could encourage little girls to accept an adventurous, curious forest researcher as a possible role model," she hopes.

Nadkarni's idea stayed with her for long. Her original plan was to offer it to Mattel so that they could design and manufacture the dolls. "But when I contacted them, they were not interested. There wasn't a big enough market of girls and adults who would find the idea appealing," she recalls. Undeterred, she fashioned the dolls herself, helped by her students. They bought second-hand Barbies and enlisted volunteer tailors to create field outfits. They even sourced miniature helmets and boots on e-bay, and created a handbook on canopy-dwelling plants. Barely 30 of these dolls were sold on Nadkarni's website in one year.

Years later, when she was approached by the National Geographic Society, who had partnered with Mattel to make five Explorer Barbies, she saw it as a victory. Not only did they love the idea of the TreeTop Barbie, but also brought her onboard as project advisor. "It is significant that a big corporation and society as a whole have changed. Girls now want to play with an adventurous Barbie, who is dressed in non-glamourous clothes, someone who wants to save the planet." This summer, a set of five Explorer Barbies was launched, including a polar explorer, a wildlife researcher, a nature photographer, an astrophysicist, and an entomologist.

Nadkarni is excited what this symbolises for any eight-year-old growing up in any corner of the world, including Thane, her father's neighbourhood. "When that little girl asks her parents to buy her an Explorer Barbie, her message is that she is keen to explore the identity of a woman who has chosen to pursue science, conservation, and protecting the Earth. She is not concerned about how she looks, what her body is shaped like or what makeup she wears."

The Treetop Barbie

Nalini Nadkarni has researched tree canopies through her career and is a professor at the Department of Biology, University of Utah

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