Lorna Russell

She's just a toy, and a good one at that, says Annalisa Barbieri.

Barbie bad for you? My arse she is. Thank goodness for Barbie, for a toy that still involves some imagination, around which children can create their own fantasy world instead of having one ready-made and presented to them. Of course it's a multi-million dollar industry so Barbie has a world - a glamorous American world consisting of Ken ("friend"), Midge (best friend), Skipper (little sister), Puppy Ruff (puppy) and Mitzi Meow (kitten) among many others. But you don't need these to take part.

Barbie is just a doll. Such a little thing and yet, in recent years, she has had so much criticism aimed at her and has, seemingly, a lot to answer for. I don't particularly even like Barbie per se but it's what she represents that I feel such a strong need to protect. And that is, essentially, an old- fashioned toy. A toy with very little to go wrong with it that can fire a thousand story lines. That you can dress up, undress, send up the side of the sofa on a mountaineering expedition or into the bath water for pearl-gathering missions.

I've lost count of the number of people who have tried to steer their little girls away from Barbie. But little girls, thankfully, mercifully, often know better than their parents, for it is the parents' hang-ups and associations that make Barbie "dangerous". Saying Barbie gives little girls a distorted idea of how real women are shaped is such hackneyed rubbish. In the absence of any real opinions, cliches always get trotted out. Do children see nothing but Barbie? Why should one doll form their opinion over the hundreds and thousands of real people they see every day, in the street, at school, on television?

Next year Barbie is 40. The promotional bumph says Barbie "encourages [girls] to be anything they want to be..." which I think is just bowing to ridiculous political correctness because children have always known that is not Barbie's role. It is their ability to make Barbie into anything they want that makes her so precious to them. So Barbie has her pilot's licence, several masters' degrees, is a top athlete and still manages to keep her pony groomed. Big deal. Barbie invariably ends up doing nothing more glamorous than being dressed and undressed a thousand times and having her nails painted with felt tip pens.

A Barbie is no worse for a child than a teddy or a train set, all wonderful staples of childhood that we should encourage. With a Barbie, or any doll, a child can go anywhere, do anything. Together they can have fabulous adventures that will feed their minds and develop their imaginations. Years later a Barbie found in the attic will trigger memories that can still transport her owner to a place that, sadly, she doesn't go to much anymore.

Why are grown-ups so afraid of Barbie? Because she represents some Western ideal? Because her figure, upgraded to "real" size is impossible to achieve? We are in danger of looking at a child's toy through an adult's microscope and, of course, seeing all the wrong things. To a child Barbie is just a delicious play thing that never says she can't play with you, always smiles, will accompany her owner everywhere, and never shouts. Onto her can be projected wishes and dreams. Thank goodness little people are so much wiser than we are.

We don't want our daughters aspiring to look like this, says .

I know a gorgeous mixed-race little girl with beautiful reddish-brown curls and the sort of eyes that men are going to spendlots of time gazing into. But all she wants is straight blonde hair.

Still, at least she's only got as far as the hair. She hasn't yet started saying she wants legs like sticks (straight up and down please. Who needs muscles or fat? They're only for running around with), a minuscule waist, or eyes like a bushbaby on speed.

Mattel claims that Barbie's enduring popularity (two Barbies are sold every second across the world) is due to the fact that she's "always evolving". Proof of this, apparently, comes from the fact that Barbie reflects the trends of each decade, such as the working woman, which was reflected by Doctor Barbie as early (ahem) as 1988. Ahead of her time, our Babs.

Not only do Barbie's careers move with the times, her face does too. Although rumours of plastic surgery on her breasts and waist, to make her less curvy, appear to be unfounded, Mattel has given her a face lift. "Extensive tests" into how little girls live in the Nineties led to narrowing her nose, wiping some of her slap off and firmly shutting her pert little mouth. (So she can't talk or so she doesn't look as though she's about to give someone a blow-job?)

Although Barbie has only had three face lifts in nearly 40 years, she does get a new career every year. This year's was Dentist Barbie, who comes with "a professional white button-up coat" which is so bloody short that Mr Patient is sure to get a splendid treat when Babs bends over to pick up her instruments.

Research at East Anglia University has confirmed what most of us knew already: that giving dolls and fluffy toys to little girls will condition them into thinking they are only fit for stereotypical female roles when they grow up. So our little girls will think they can be dentists but only if they conform to Barbie's 52D, 21in, 34in statistics. A healthy shape for anyone to aspire to. The National Centre for Eating Disorders says anxiety about body shape is evident in girls as young as seven or eight and that a third to a half of all girls of nine see themselves as bigger than they are and are paranoid about gaining weight.

Black girls tend to be less obsessed with their weight than white girls and have a better sense of self esteem about their bodies. So perhaps we should be thankful that Mattel's main concession to multi-cultural Britain is the option of buying Rapunzel Barbie in both white and black (or, as one press officer charmingly put it, "in the ethnic"). Luckily there's little danger of any black children actually identifying with the black Rapunzel: her hair is the same as white Barbie's, except it's "dark" and her features are the same as white Barbie's, except they're coloured brown.

Not that Barbie is completely refusing to move with the times. 1998's Cool Colours Barbie comes with "Doc Marten-style" boots. Unfortunately, they're unlaced so, with 52D breasts and legs of string, she's just going to trip over her laces and fall flat on her face. Shame.

Annalisa Barbieri is a contributing editor at the 'Independent on Sunday'

is editor of 'Sybil', a feminist magazine