Don’t Make Barbie’s Body Crisis Ours
Surviving the winds of time and adjusting to changing social mores, evolving styles, and increasing demands, is easy for no woman—and it certainly hasn’t been for Barbie.
Mattel announced today that Barbie’s Fashionista line of dolls will now offer three different body types: tall, petite, and, most notably, curvy.
The dolls will also be offered with more skin tones and hairstyles. “We believe we have a responsibility to girls and parents to reflect a broader view of beauty,” Senior Vice President and Global General Manager Barbie Evelyn Mazzocco said in a press release.
There will be tall, petite, and curvy Barbie shapes in an effort to offer more diverse and realistic doll options.
Tall Barbie is specifically tall and lean, and she looks pretty much like the traditional Barbie. Mattel has noted that these new dolls will have flat feet, rather than the ever-en pointe ones, so perhaps tall Barbie’s hooves mark the biggest difference from her predecessor.
Petite Barbie is shorter than usual Barbie, but again, she appears from the press photos to be pretty much just as skinny as the Barbie I played with as a child.
The only shape where Barbie could not be considered thin is in the curvy Barbie, the one getting the most attention.
And even curvy Barbie doesn’t seem particularly heavy. I would doubt her Body Mass Index (BMI) would qualify her as overweight and certainly not as obese, which according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control around one-third of American adults are.
Though born a full-bodied woman, Barbie is a child of the Baby Boom, premiering in 1959 at the American Toy Fair in New York City.
Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler sought an alternative to baby dolls for young girls, so she bought the rights to the German Bild Lillie, a doll that was based off a “saucy high-end call girl,” according to Time.com, and sold to grown men.
That model explains Barbie’s famously sexy physique: itty-bitty waist, feet so tiny they looked like a product of Chinese foot-binding, perfectly-round ass, and, of course, breasts that would make Jane Russell jealous.
Little girls grew up idolizing Barbie as the perfect woman, the ultimate model of feminine beauty with her impossible to achieve body.
And then some of these little girls grew up into feminists who were repulsed by the unrealistic physical standards that Barbie tacitly promoted and questioned what, if any, professional ambitions she fostered (though Barbie’s website boasts, she “broke the ‘plastic ceiling’ in the 1960s when, as an astronaut, she went to the moon…four years before Neil Armstrong”). Barbie has served in a wide-range of professions, from ob-gyn (I had this one) to police officer to presidential candidate.
And Barbie even ditched Ken, that ol’ ball-and-chain, to hack it as a single lady for at least a few years.
But the famous Barbie build that so rankled parents concerned about their children’s sense of body image didn’t really change—until now.
The pressure on Barbie to change her look has become a modern constant. Invoking a study, Brandy Zadrozny noted in The Daily Beast in 2014 that Barbie’s bad rap was catching up to her. “Barbie actually weakens a girl’s career ambition,” Zadrozny wrote, describing an Oregon State University study that showed “Girls who were given Barbies to play with thought they could do fewer ‘boy jobs,’ than girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head.”
At that point, Barbie’s popularity was already plummeting; sales had peaked in 2002.
Almost exactly a year ago in January 2015, Mattel’s board fired its CEO, Bryan Stockton, because Barbie’s popularity had plummeted, with a 59 percent drop in earnings over the last quarter of 2014.
Personally, as someone who grew up playing with Barbies and loving them far beyond the timeframe of social acceptability (note to 12-year-old self: do not invite middle school peers over to play with Barbies), I’m ambivalent about the Barbie body reboot.
Based on my own experiences, I was suspect of how bad Barbie was for children. Even as a grown woman with enough body image issues to keep a therapist in business until North West is old enough to start her own Twitter battle, I can’t blame Barbie for these insecurities.
When I was growing up, it didn’t take long to realize I was overweight and looked different from some unrealistic feminine beauty ideal, but that had more to do with the women I obsessed over in pop culture—the svelte ladies of Friends, the toned women of the Spice Girls (their fitness was clearly not exclusive to Sporty)—and, of course, teasing classmates.
Sarai Walker, an expert on female body image pressures and author of 2015’s Dietland, an acclaimed feminist novel about a woman who rebels against societal pressures on women to lose weight, said she also grew up loving Barbie.
“I played with Barbie, and I grew up into this feminist writer and wrote a radical novel about feminism,” Walker told The Daily Beast.
“It’s hard to know how Barbie affected me, but I do think she’s become the symbol of our protests against body ideals and objectification,” she said.
However, Walker was also ambivalent about how much of the onus of body-shaming should be thrusted on Barbie. “She’s a convenient villain,” Walker said. “She’s a symptom of a much larger problem. So many things play into it, not just Barbie.”
Walker was dubious of how dramatic a change these Barbie shapes, especially the curvy one, marked. Sure, curvy Barbie is at least a bit more ample, but she’s more like a (somewhat) enlarged version of her drooled-over hourglass figure.
In short, Barbie’s body still meets the conventional standards for female physical beauty. “She doesn’t threaten the status quo,” Walker said.
“Someone who is curvy is plus-sized but acceptable,” Walker noted. “She [Barbie] doesn’t look all that different from the traditional Barbie. She’s kind of like Christina Hendricks—larger than what we’re used to seeing on TV, but men still swoon over her.”
Walker has a different idea of what a truly revolutionary Barbie would be.
“I don’t know if Mattel could ever make a doll whose main purpose wasn’t to be cute and attractive to boys and men. I would love to see them dare to do something like that.”
It may be a fantasy to expect Mattel, or any toy company, to start producing dolls that aren’t just expanding conceptions of beauty, but rather, rooted in telling girls (and boys) that worrying about whether people think you’re beautiful, pretty, or hot is superficial bunk. But if Barbie can beat Armstrong to the moon, than making such a doll should be child’s play.