Barbie’s New Body

How do you like her now?

Posted Mar 25, 2016

Full disclosure:  I didn’t play with Barbies when I was a little girl.  My mom tells me that she found them ugly and offensive, so she kept them at bay -- until my youngest sister wanted a Barbie.  I guess that by the time you have a third daughter all bets are off.  Her favorite pasttime was cutting their hair; she owns her own hair salon now.

My family history aside, Barbie’s been entertaining and offending for generations.  Beloved by many, but despised by others, it’s not merely her shiny blondness that offends, but mostly her unrealistic body proportions. Research suggests that a healthy adult woman would need to drop six inches from her waist while gaining five inches in her bust if she was going to come close to achieving Barbie’s body.  Or, put another way, a 5’7” tall woman with Barbie’s proportions would have a bust-waist-hip ratio of  36”-12”-29”.  The probability of this body shape occurring in real life has been estimated at less than 1 in 100,000.

But, that was then; now, Mattel aims to appease Barbie’s critics with its recent release of Barbies of tall, petite, and curvy proportions.  The cover of a recent Time magazine features the new “curvy” Barbie in profile with the headline, “Now Can We Stop Talking About My Body?”  It’s a catchy cover, but the question is entirely rhetorical. 

Source: Mattel

After all, Barbie has offered little more than a plastic body, clothes that are impossible to get on her body, high-heeled shoes that are always lost, and a slew of pink accessories for decades.  Mattel has had “progressive moments” of providing Barbie with careers and allowing her to leave Ken (in 2004, but that didn’t last).  Some suggest that Barbie’s new bodies are evidence that she is evolving, but it is too soon to say that feminism has prevailed.   And, it’s entirely likely that Barbie is only diversifying out of  Mattel’s financial need; Barbie’s sales dropped 10% from 2012-2014 suggesting her lagging appeal.

In spite of the drop in sales, according to recent reporting, 92% of American girls have owned a Barbie.  It would be nice if we could at least say that Barbie’s body doesn’t actually affect any of these girls.  But, data suggests the contrary.  One study found that young girls who were exposed to images of Barbies, as opposed to other larger “Emme” dolls, were more likely to want to be thin and express dissatisfaction with their own bodies.   Qualitative analyses of middle-schoolers’ reflections on their experiences with Barbie dolls suggest an acknowledgement of Barbie’s “perfectness” and the realization that Barbie presents an unobtainable beauty ideal.  Seems hard not to attribute some of girls’ body image concerns to Barbie.

This isn’t to say that we can blame Barbie for all of our body image woes.  Of course, it would be nice if less energy was devoted to discourse about women’s bodies in general.  If girls and women were valued less for their appearance and more for their intellect; if body dissatisfaction was not rampant among young girls and older women alike.  It seems unlikely that girls and women will experience less body objectification because Barbie now offers a few minor modifications on the body that originally made her famous.

Barbie may remain among the most popular children’s toys, but just imagine if she was an athlete, a neurosurgeon, a presidential candidate, or a PhD student?  What if her profession, intellect, and the functionality of her body got more press than her proportions?  What if girls could learn from Barbie that it was valuable to be kind and funny, not merely pretty?  Now that’s a toy I could see buying my own daughter.

PS – I’ve written about Barbie before.  For more related thoughts, look here and check out my book, Smart People Don’t Diet.

Copyright Charlotte Markey 2016

Charlotte Markey, used with permission
Source: Charlotte Markey, used with permission

Smart People Don’t Diet (Da Capo Lifelong Books and Nero) by Dr. Charlotte Markey is available now, here. You can follow Dr Markey on Twitter (@char_markey), Facebook (Dr. Charlotte Markey and SmartenFit), Pinterest and on her website Smart People Don’t Diet (