June 20, 2010

Doll parts: Barbie, beauty and resistance

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.

While Barbie is a manufactured fantasy, she remains an emblem of idealized femininity and a key element of gender socialization.

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 beauty icon.

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.

The result?

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.



15 Comments »

  1. What a gift to be able to express outrage at society’s misconception of female beauty. Thank you for sharing!!! And to Justine for allowing!!!!

    Comment by Patience Shutts — June 20, 2010 @ 8:30 pm

  2. Ha! dear old barbie, well she was based on a german sex doll if memory correct, that ‘Mrs Matel”came across on her travels. Anyhow, I had barbies & midge & ken oh & skipper when growing up & played with them for hours on end acting out all kinds of scenarios. They were blonde, red head, brunette etc., long hair, short hair & one my sister had with a rather olive complexion so I don’t think it’s quite accurate to say she’s blonde, caucasion etc. Over the years she’s had many incarnations & skin colours but that impossible body shape has never changed. Ultimately the ended up in the hands of my neice who made artworks out of some of them.I’m more concerned about the unrealistic images of real people,sizr zero celebreties & the like that the media constantly puts out there affecting young girls self esteem. Thank you for the article, always thought provoking.

    Comment by Kathleen Dittmar — June 21, 2010 @ 9:35 am

  3. Thanks for this!! I recently wrote a song about just this, a diatribe about Barbie and Bratz dolls. Have a listen. I hate them.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pR8_CEWARvA&feature=player_embedded

    Comment by Wendy Solomon — June 21, 2010 @ 12:16 pm

  4. Powerful images. And they speak to the importance of giving girls opportunities to express their frustrations creatively. Instead of internalizing all the harmful messages about what we’re “supposed” to act like and look like, let’s teach future generations how to talk back and turn those messages on their heads. In this girl’s case, she’s done that quite literally! Bravo!

    Comment by Claire — June 22, 2010 @ 8:25 am

  5. “As an ambassador of a twisted yet looming beauty norm, its no wonder that Barbie is subject to “torture play.””

    I don’t know, I just find that a disturbing idea. Physically attacking a tiny doll woman and sticking pins in her because she’s very unrealistically attractive…

    Not wanting to look like Barbie is fine. But the physical aspect of her is just one thing, one thing we’re too hung up on, on real women and on this doll.

    I think it would be more constructive to have girls act out the consequences of Barbies’ beauty, i.e the breathing difficulty, mobility, etc.

    Comment by Lasciel — June 28, 2010 @ 12:38 am

  6. [...] An earlier version appeared at Feminist Fatale as Doll Parts: Barbie, Beauty and Resistance. [...]

    Pingback by Doll Parts: The “Barbie Executioner” Strikes Back : Ms Magazine Blog — July 29, 2010 @ 12:47 pm

  7. I know this is old now, but I’ve just seen this.

    Not only is the opportunity given by your friend to their child a fantastic way for the young girl to learn, but I think I see the makings of a potentially greta artist. The sculptures and images created using the doll parts are so creative, emotive and just… wow!

    Comment by BunnyMaz — January 25, 2011 @ 1:15 pm

  8. these reconstructions are incredible.

    thanks for sharing!

    Comment by laura — November 22, 2011 @ 10:55 am

  9. Great post, really enjoyed it.

    Comment by lscott — November 30, 2011 @ 2:36 pm

  10. [...] An earlier version appeared at Feminist Fatale as Doll Parts: Barbie, Beauty and Resistance. [...]

    Pingback by Doll Parts: The “Barbie Executioner” Strikes Back | Adios Barbie — December 13, 2011 @ 9:16 am

  11. Well in my opinion i think that young girls are taught to like barbies and are shown and influenced to look like a replicate of one since a young age. Because parents all across the world influence their daughter’s to like and play with barbie dolls. Which does in fact impact every girls lifestyle and how their personalities will result in later on their future’s. Because as young girl’s grow up they see those barbie dolls as a sort of role model and something to be like and to look up to. But before I never that realized until reading this article and how more in depth the situation could be, Maybe that’s why women all around the globe judge themselves on how they look and it could be many other factors all around that has affected everyone and how they look. Barbie’s have always been around for many years, and girls everywhere have always been encouraged and influenced to play with them. However, what was surprising and shocking in this article though was that they had limited quantities on ethic Barbie’s and sold them for less money downgrading women of color. Like what was the whole point and concept of that?

    Comment by Danny S — November 25, 2012 @ 6:01 pm

  12. Am I the only female who played with Barbie and didn’t think it was society trying to force me to be blonde, blue-eyed, white, and plastic? This hate and outrage directed toward Barbie reminds me of the ubiquitous group of girls/women who secretly, or not so secretly hate and sabotage their “skinny” (or rich, or pretty) friend. Lord knows we can’t have any positive feelings toward a pretty, wealthy, thin, successful, tall white woman. In plastic doll form. I suppose I’ll have to feel denigrated by Naomi Campbell as well (w/o her chucking a cell phone at me) because her face and body are unattainable for most. I’ve never understood Barbie bashing, and I suppose I never will.

    Comment by rugbybunny324 — January 7, 2013 @ 10:39 pm

  13. [...] to 22 percent of body fat required for a woman to menstruate” (Retrieved February 19, 2013, from http://www.feministfatale.com/2010/06/doll-parts-barbie-beauty-and-resistance/). The bedroom, which represents a place of privacy and power for girls within this age bracket, was [...]

    Pingback by Kids’ Online Practices | robert7mendez — February 21, 2013 @ 1:59 am

  14. Made me think of an article I found the other day at Takimag defending physically beautiful women. Not a common perspective but a clever one.

    Wrath of the Rotund
    by Guy Somerset
    http://takimag.com/article/wrath_of_the_rotund_guy_somerset#axzz2LGfwPnv2

    Comment by Wil Madison — February 22, 2013 @ 7:55 am

  15. Not that long ago I came across a photo with the typical Barbie next to what a Barbie would look with the avergae women’s body. It reminded me about this post because in reality its almost impossible for a woman to have the same physical structure like Barbie. I grew up playing with Barbies and at that age I used to admire how perfect their bodies looked, in short I was kind of obsessed, and once I reached adolecense I lost regard for them. However I do think that growing up and playing with these toys I judged my own body but somehow I knew that I would never be that skinny. Even if models or actresses on Televesion and magazines looked like them, I knew that in reality that was unattainable. I would have liked my mom to gear me in the same direction Justine did with her daughter, but instead my mother tried instilling in me that I model after that beauty ideal of Barbie.

    Comment by Julissa C — November 12, 2013 @ 3:11 pm

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