Few other topics in Toyland bring as much strife as mothers and women discussing the virtues and sins of allowing girls to play with Barbie. What starts as a polite conversation about a cultural icon, can stop female bonding in its tracks. Barbie is an extremely polarizing figure.
Some women feel allowing girls to play with Barbie contributes to them developing eating disorders, superficial perfectionism and seeing themselves as subordinate to men. Others feel that feminism over Barbie is only for fundamentalists, passionate zealots who take children’s play far too seriously.
For many women, Barbie reminds them of their own childhood. And they remember if they enjoyed their time with Barbie, or if Barbie was seen as a rival, someone that had to be emulated.
This debate has been around since Barbie’s inception in the late 1950’s. Initially, before the sexual revolution, Mattel was afraid that the doll was too sexually liberated to match consumers’ tastes. Over the years, Barbie was criticized for not being intellectual enough. She needed to be more than just a fashion model and so the makers experimented with wide-ranging careers including astronomy, paleontology, pediatrics and even NASCAR racing.
Can women have it all? I am not sure, Barbie is trying and she must be exhausted by now. And the public turmoil over her figure does not seem to abate.
This week, artist and researcher Nickolay Lamm introduced his three dimensional Barbie doll that accurately reflects typical, female body proportions. Lamm used the Centers for Disease Control’s measurements of an average 19-year-old woman to create a doll that actually looks like a real woman. Looking at the two dolls side by side, Mattel’s version and Lamm’s, Barbie still appears exceedingly attractive with long straight blond hair and blue eyes.
In 1998, Mattel also attempted to rectify the body image issue through creating “Really Rad Barbie,” a doll with a larger waist and smaller bust. And in 2011, then college student Galia Slayen gained national media attention when she presented her life size rendering of Barbie for National Eating Disorders awareness week. The doll visited the Today Show where she wore a size “00” skirt and stood 6 feet off the ground with a ginormous 39” bust, an 18 inch waist and size 33 hips.
All of this neurosis over a doll necessitates a bit of reflection. Barbie’s yearly makeovers reflect the contradictory messages we give girls in our culture about appearance, weight and professional pursuit. The messages women and girls receive, including to appear attractive at all times but also get a career and not depend on a man, are oxymoronic. We tend to play out our own confusion about what women should be and what they are not by becoming overly passionate or apathetic about a Barbie Doll.
This public debate mirrors what many girls internally experience on a daily basis--feeling they are not good enough, fearing the fallout if this were to be discovered and then working very hard to remake the self into something that others will desire. What they are sorely missing, however, is honest, direct conversation with other women about how to dull the focus on pleasing others and turn up the volume on pleasing the self.
Dolls provide girls with a blank canvas on which they can pretend, experiment, and fantasize about one of their deepest passions—relationships. All that we project onto Barbie—dumb blond, narcissistic, too thin, too fat, merely represents what we should be discussing directly with our girls. When direct conversation is lacking, conversation in which a girl’s thoughts and feelings are taken seriously, pretending becomes her way of connecting and engaging others. Like Barbie, she works to morph herself into whatever she imagines others want her to be.
As we educate girls about the difference between external perfection and internal contentment, Barbie will not have to get a makeover every year. As girls learn to value themselves on their own, separate from achieving male desire, they safely know the difference between real-life and make believe.
Let’s not substitute anger over a plastic doll for direct conversation with girls about the complexities of the culture in which they are growing up.
Jill P. Weber, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and author of Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy—Why Women Settle for One-Sided Relationships. Click here to follow Jill on Facebook or here to follow Jill on Twitter @DrJillWeber