Barbie is a cultural icon. With her long, silky, blonde hair, perky breasts, cinched waist and mile-high legs Barbie represents mainstream definitions of physical perfection, the paragon of beauty and ideal femininity. Her shiny pink corvette, swanky townhouse, and oodles and oodles of perfectly accessorized outfits indicate her success within the consumer culture machine. Collectively, her physical and material assets (Eurocentric beauty, white-skin and class privilege rolled up into one statuesque doll), represent the collective dream spun by post-WWII advertisers and reinforced by the culture at large.
For more than 50 years, she has not waned in popularity (gained a pound, developed a wrinkle or gray hair) even in the face of mounting criticism.
Despite some of the negative headlines Barbie is still a hit with girls across America and the world.
More than one billion dolls have been sold since her inception, and according to the dolls makers, Mattel, 90% of American girls aged between three and 10 own at least one.
Barbie fan Danielle Scott, 16, said: “Playing with the hair, the brushes, switching outfits. It really just made girls be girls.
“All the characteristics of what to look forward to and what girls really could do…” she said.
While it is true that Barbie has had approximately 125 jobs over the last half-century (jobs that presumably allowed her to purchase her multiple homes, extensive wardrobe etc. etc)., Barbie is not famous for her resume. She is most well-known for her flawless figure and coveted beauty.
She is a timeless icon that continues to influence young girls perception of ideal beauty, a model to emulate. But with her alien measurements, Caucasian features, ivory skin, blond hair, and unnaturally thin body (I had a vintage Barbie scale fixed at 110 pounds, a weight that would inform my notion of a woman’s ideal weight for most of my adult life), how can anyone possibly measure up?
Evelyn Ticona-Vergaray reports in Barbie’s 50 years of beauty and controversy:
Studies made by the Wellness Resource Center at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee confirmed that a human version with Barbie’s body proportions would only have room for an esophagus or a trachea in her neck, a tibia or a fibula in her legs, and that she would have to crawl to support her top-heavy frame.
Academics from the University of South Australia suggest that chances of finding a woman having Barbie’s body shape is one in 100,000. Moreover, researchers at Finland’s University Central Hospital say if Barbie were a real woman she would lack the 17 to 22 percent of body fat required for a woman to menstruate.
The bottom line is, most girls and women could never and will never look like Barbie although many try(and some try harder than others). As an ambassador of a twisted yet looming beauty norm, its no wonder that Barbie is subject to “torture play.”
Research found in the article “Early adolescents’ experiences with, and views of, ‘Barbie’” revealed a high rate of “torture play” and “anger play” associated with the Barbie doll. Girls admitted to blaming the image of Barbie for their self-consciousness and lack of self esteem due to the simple impossibility of living up to the standards of beauty presented by the plastic doll.
But most of that anger play is played out in private, with little dialogue or social commentary to accompany the cut hair, dismembered appendages and pins shoved through her cheeks. After all, it’s not just Barbie that sets the standard. She is the cultural representation of beauty reinforced throughout the larger culture by family, friends, peers, cartoons, commercials, television shows and films.
My mother never addressed Barbie as an unreal depiction of beauty. In fact, the only times beauty was discussed in my family is when my mother told me I needed to lose weight or my grandmother told me I needed to “suffer to be beautiful.” My critique of beauty came far too late in life, in my early twenties when I stumbled upon feminism’s door step and Hole’s Courtney Love belted out the lyrics to Doll Parts in her torn baby doll dress and smeared lipstick.
I am doll eyes/ Doll mouth, doll legs/ I am doll arms, big veins, dog bait/ Yeah, they really want you, they really want you, they really do/ Yeah, they really want you, they really want you, they really do/ I want to be the girl with the most cake
Despite feminist consciousness and feminist criticism’s of Barbie, Barbie appeals to the daughters of feminist parents and even makes her way into their homes. It’s not too surprising given the fact that gender socialization doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Few parents can effectively combat conflicting values outside the home. But what if a dialogue about limited definitions of femininity and beauty begins early?
Recently my friend, Justine, showed me pictures of her 9-year-old daughter’s anger play that was turned into artistic self-expression and social commentary. Her daughter, a tiny girl with a self-proclaimed “big personality,” requested a Barbie the first time she saw one at a friend’s house at the age of five. Justine, an outspoken, self-assured woman with a personal disdain for Barbie who also teaches a class to young girls called “Tapping the Body’s Wisdom,” was quick to discuss her feelings about Barbie’s “unrealistic portrayal of feminine beauty,” something not worth “aspiring to.” Mother and daughter discussed beauty and how the image of Barbie made them feel, specifically how Barbie made her daughter feel about herself. Her daughter acknowledged that she did not look like Barbie. In fact, she acknowledged that no dolls looked like her and, in the end, she consciously acknowledged that she did not want to be that doll. Shortly thereafter, her daughter began to take apart her Barbies (and Bratz dolls) and play with their heads and appendages alone. Justine suggested saving the appendages for a future art project
After several lengthy discussions on beauty and hours of dismembering Barbie and the Bratz, Justine provided her daughter with a canvas to express herself. Her daughter pored through beauty magazines to find words to express her feelings.
I was moved by her 9-year-old’s ability to take the “smallness” Barbie made her feel, a feeling that too often remains silent and is internalized, and articulate it loudly on canvas. We may have a limited measure of control over the images our daughters are exposed to but we are able to help them cultivate a critical consciousness, use their voice and develop a healthy body image.