Olds’ “Sex Without Love” and Piercy’s “Barbie Doll” Poems


The two poems “Sex without Love” by Sharon Olds and “Barbie Doll” by Marge Piercy that will be investigated in this essay explore different themes. Yet, they have much in common, which allows them to be analyzed together. The first poem depicts the two lovers united in the act of “love without love,” while remaining alone and self-centered. In the second one, a fate of a “girlchild,” who was assessed by people as “flawed,” is described. Despite the difference in their subjects, both poems discuss the problem of the relation of human nature to the norms established in the social world. This essay will argue that the commitment to adhere to social standards results in eliminating the worth of a human in a modern community.

Human Nature as Raw Material for Shaping

In both poems, there is a reference to the “natural” state of a human; it is considered imperfect by the society and, thus, determined to be altered, bringing it to the accepted shape. In “Barbie Doll,” the description is clear: the “girlchild” grew up “healthy, tested intelligent, / possessed strong arms and back, / abundant sexual drive and manual dexterity” (Piercy, p. 92). In “Sex without Love,” there is no explicit reference to the natural state of the lovers. However, the author is wondering at “how do they come … to the god come to the / still waters, and not love / the one who came there with them?” (Olds, p. 264). For the poet, the absence of the deep interconnection between two “hooked inside each other bodies,” defined as love, seems unnatural. In both cases, as appears further, it is social norms, being abnormal, evil, and egocentric, that shape a human according to the voluntary constructed “ideal.”

Standards of Shaping

Two poems, in their way, demonstrate the standards of modern society, including the perfect appearance of a woman (“Barbie Doll”) and the ideal position of humans in their relationship with each other (“Sex without Love”). The title “Barbie Doll” is an explicit proclamation of the social image of a flawless woman. A girl’s “shaping” starts at the very beginning of her life when the “girlchild” is “presented dolls … / and miniature GE stoves and irons / and wee lipsticks the color of cherry candy” (Piercy, p. 92). Thus, she is being prepared to be an ideal pretty-appearing housewife, as an object that might be consumed by society. Later, the image gets more details as during her puberty, in addition to the previous qualities, she is determined to have a body shaped by the standards. Her “great big nose and fat legs” does not fit into such an ideal, and she is obliged to “apologize,” being “advised to play coy, / exhorted to come on hearty, / exercise, diet, smile, and wheedle” (Piercy, p. 92). No one is interested in her intelligence, health, or other qualities; she is a mere object, still “a fat nose on thick legs.”

In “Sex without Love,” this ideal is implicit but recognizable as well. The beautiful metaphors of the lovers that appear at the beginning of the poem may, at first, confuse the readers. “Beautiful as dancers, / they glide over each other like ice-skaters / over the ice,” creating an image of something extremely beautiful. The perfection, although, is not only aesthetical; they are “the true religious … the ones who will not / accept a false Messiah, love the / priest instead of the God” (Olds, p. 264). The lines may cause questions; for those, however, who are familiar with some spiritual teachings, such as presently popularized Tantra, these lines would make more sense. It is Tantra where the ultimate goal of the love act lies beyond the human realm. However, unless misinterpreted, the theory does not exclude the emotional connection with the “lover,” implying it in an even deeper than usual sense. In Tantric teaching, the person “who came to God” together with an adept is a part of God and should be worshipped as well.

Further, the lover is compared to the elements of the outer world. As “great runners,” not bothered by “the road surface, the cold, the wind, the fit of their shoes,” the partners in the act are just “factors” for each other, among many others (Olds, p. 264). He or she, “the pro” that knows the “truth,” is presented as a spiritual person making the ideal of “the single body alone in the universe” convincing for the readers (Olds, p. 264). Thus, the beauty and high spirit of the solitude, ice-like detachment, and self-determination to reach “the god” shape the appearance of those included in “sex without love.”

The Outcome of the Shaping

When the standards are determined, it is only a matter of people’s personal choice to which degree to adhere to them. However, for those who want to be accepted and appreciated, so-called “perfectionists” such as a “girlchild” in “Barbie Doll,” there is no way except the struggle of altering their nature. As it may not give a result or not catch constantly changing social ideal, the only issue left for the girl is, as it is done in Piercy’s poem, to “cut off her nose and her legs / and offered them up” (Piercy, p. 92). Her initially good nature “wore out / like a fan belt;” this is the sacrifice of a young woman striving to achieve social acceptance (Piercy, p. 92). Then, lying in the casket with the cosmetics on her face, pretty though dead, she ultimately gets a “consummation,” which “to every woman a happy ending” (Piercy, p. 92). She lived a life on an object for consumption, and she ended being “consummated,” such an ideal model is proposed for a woman in modern society.

Similarly, in “Sex without Love,” no perspectives and no implication of deep spiritual meaning are presented if to examine it closely. The poem’s last lines give a hint to it referring to a “single body … against its own best time” (Olds, p. 264). This phrase reminds me of the temporal character of life and the inevitability of passing away “its best times.” After reading the poem, a feeling of bitter irony, if not sarcasm, appears depicting egocentric human nature instead of spiritual search. One is a mere instrument and a “factor” for another, and “lover” is not confused with “their own pleasure” simply because the latter is the only thing that matters. At the end of the poem, the readers are forced to evaluate the worth of such a life in loneliness, action without interaction, and sex without love.


As it was discussed, the two poems, “Sex without Love” by Olds and “Barbie Doll” by Piercy, are dedicated to different subjects, however, referring to the same problem. This problem may be defined as the violation of human nature by harmful social standards that lack consideration of the worth of a human. Both personal appearance and relations of the people are affected by the stereotypical signs of perfection and virtue. The roots of it lie in the egocentric position of the people prevailing in the modern world. Through the ironic and grotesque pictures in the poems, both authors demonstrate the absurdity of the existing approach and make the readers examine and reevaluate the standards considered “normal” in present society.

Works Cited

  1. Olds, Sharon. “Sex without Love.” The Iowa Review, vol. 12, no. 2, 1981, p. 264. doi.org/10.17077/0021-065X.2758
  2. Piercy, Marge. Circles on the Water: Selected Poems by Marge Piercy. Knopf, 1982.
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