You see, I just realized that as an adult I've taken it for granted that Barbie is a destructive symbol of society's unrealistic standards of beauty. Of course, I reasoned, she only serves to diminish girls' and womens' self-esteem! That's what you always read, right? And yeah her proportions are physiologically impossible (or they used to be, I know they've tinkered around with her a bit in recent years). But tonight I stumbled upon this article by Louisa Peacock wherein she reflects on how Barbie is not to blame for any body issues she may have. Recently an executive at Mattel, the makers of Barbie, said the great big unspoken "duh!" that the doll is not supposed to be realistic. Peacock declares this admission to be refreshing (though admittedly a little overdue) and I for one find Peacock's attitude refreshing. For the first time in all my adult years of listening to Barbie criticism and dutifully nodding I thought, "You know, I really don't think any issues I've ever had about my body are because of Barbie dolls." Yup, that's right, it never occurred to me during my formative years that Barbie was indicative of reality. My Barbies had perpetually arched feet with holes on the soles. You could pop their heads off and switch them up like Mombi from Return to Oz. They were devoid of nipples. I was too preoccupied with trying to get their shoes to stay on to worry about measuring up to any standards. I spent many an hour pissed off that their synthetic hair could not be washed and brushed without it totally getting effed up, but feeling bad about myself? No.
Still, I should acknowledge that maybe my pov has its roots in white privilege. I can definitely see how a doll like Barbie might make a little girl who is not blond, blue-eyed and white (as I was) feel like she is not represented or celebrated as beautiful. Barbie has definitely gotten more diverse over the years and now you can buy a doll of a different ethnicity that doesn't look like the regular white Barbie in a darker color; that was harder to find when I was kid. Doll manufacturers absolutely have a responsibility to provide quality products that can appeal to a diverse consumer population. But let's just focus on the body shape, weight thing for this post and forgive me if all I can do in the following paragraphs is describe the landscape I saw growing up inside a caucasion bell jar.
Critics of Barbie point out that she is aspirational and therefore has the power to inspire girls to want to look like her and this in turn fuels destructive thinking/behaviors: self-hate, extreme dieting, eating disorders etc. But when confronting this issue no one ever really talks much about the suspension of disbelief that occurs in the act of play or stops to consider the psychological concept of integrating one's identity so fully with a character (in this case Barbie) that there is no room for comparative analysis. In other words, when I was playing of course I was Barbie! I was a child without boobs whose shoes and head stayed on but it never occured to me that I did not look like Barbie, or really how I looked at all. Because I was her, she was me, and if I'm not conscious of any differences between myself and a doll then I'm not going to obsess about how I can bridge that gap.
"Ah! But that's exactly it!" you might say, "It is unconscious!" True, that's a valid point. I'm not arguing that media/marketing images don't have an impact on self-esteem. Because they definitely did influence me in a negative way, but all I'm saying is I don't think Barbie did a damn thing to my self-esteem either way. The waif, heroin-chic look of the 1990s? Oh that had an impact for sure! But Barbie? Nah. So maybe we should just cut Miss Plastic-No Shoes some slack.
In all the years I played with Barbies I never felt like I had to have a waist that small. I just thought it was funny that she was shaped like an upside down triangle. Actually, now that I think about it, I was more cognizant of how Barbie didn't measure up to me. After all, my shoes stayed on.
|A collage of my favorite Barbies I had as a child --1980s.|
All pics are (sadly) taken from internet. My dolls are long gone.
|The version of Malibu Barbie I played with in the early 1980s.|