Thursday, February 11, 2010

Barbie... American Icon or Harbinger of Body-Image Issues?


Ever since Mattel first introduced Barbie to America on March 9th, 1959 she has been a permanent fixture in pop culture. Most women can recall memories of having Barbie as a childhood playmate. To this day, the doll continues to be as popular as ever. Most little girls have a Barbie in their toy chest. In fact, Mattel likes to boast that three Barbie dolls are sold every second. However, despite Barbie's popularity, the marketing of this doll to young girls has fallen under much scrutiny and for good reason. Barbie promotes a body image that is a far cry from healthy. In fact, there is great debate that the doll's fantasy proportions encourage body distortion and give rise to subsequent eating disorder behavior amongst young girls.

In 1963 an apparel collection, "Barbie Baby-Sits" was launched. The outfit came with accessories, one of which was a book titled, "How to Lose Weight". The book's advice... "Don't eat". This same book accessory was featured in 1965 in the apparel collection, "Slumber Party" complete with pink bathroom scale set permanently at 110 lbs. Barbie's real-life dimensions are far from realistic. Here are some keepin' it real Barbie facts:
  • If Barbie was an actual woman her measurements would be completely unattainable. At 5'9" her bust would measure 39", her waist would be a virtually non-existent 18", and her hip measurement would come in at 33". She would wear a size 3 shoe.
  • Barbie views herself as a 'full-figured' woman at a weight of 110 lbs. In reality, at 110 lbs. Barbie is 35 lbs. underweight according to her height which puts her health in a precarious position.
  • Barbie would register a mere 16.24 BMI which would easily fit the criteria to classify her as anorexic. Menstruation would be nothing more than a faint memory for Barbie. Her body could simply not support this natural hormonal process.
  • Barbie's proportions are so unrealistic that as a real-life woman she'd have to walk around on all fours like a dog. She wouldn't be able to stand up on her own two feet.
In light of this information it makes it all the more disturbing that famous shoe designer Christian Louboutin decided to launch a 50 year anniversary edition of Barbie with a little nip-tuck. According to the designer, Barbie's lower legs were still a little too thick for his liking. He felt her ankles needed to be much slimmer and her foot more curved to show off the shoe collection he designed for the icon. His decision was met with both outrage and controversy. In his defense, Louboutin explained that it was a fashion decision based on showcasing his work. While he didn't think Barbie's original ankles were fat, he did feel that slimmer ankles would make his shoes look better. When Mattel teams up with the fashion industry you have the perfect recipe for disaster.

When are we going to demand more consciousness in advertising? When will enough be enough? I'm not a mother, but if I was, I certainly would not want my little girl playing with Barbie. She is a bad influence. I see Barbie as a symbol of the sickness that has grasped our culture. A culture that values thinness above all else. A culture that objectifies women and discourages diversity in favor of homogenization. Let's not forget that although Mattel has launched both African American and Latin American versions of the doll Stateside they continue to have distinctly Caucasian features. Barbie has one Asian friend named Kira that is hard to find in the United States because she is not heavily marketed like the other versions of the doll. When toy manufacturers target their advertising campaigns to lure in little girls ages 3-12 with messages so potentially damaging and we sit idly by twiddling our thumbs, we have a problem. Most girls own a Barbie by the age of 3. I encourage all parents to think about the message Barbie is 'whispering' in their daughter's ear. Against the backdrop of this unrealistic image, how is your little girl supposed to feel about her own body? What reflection will she see when she looks in the mirror?

We have the ability to promote an empowering message. A message that embraces diversity and encourages healthy body image. Our power to effect change lies in how we spend our consumer dollars. Every time we go to the store and make a purchase we cast a vote. Suppliers meet the demand. Corporations don't hold the power. That's an illusion. The people hold the power and we have the ability to set the precedence if we stop buying into marketing ploys and begin to put our money where our mouth is. It's time we become conscious consumers and take financial responsibility to ensure that our dollars support businesses in line with our values.

When I think back I believe even as a child I knew that Barbie was a little off. There was something I didn't like about that girl. All my Barbie's suffered the same fate. They eventually made it to the hairdresser only to have their long silky locks hacked away into mohawks. Soon their faces would adorn permanent marker mustaches and other unflattering 'enhancements'. Then the inevitable day would come when Barbie's fate was sealed. Her demise was seen in a heap of body parts... a head here... a bendable leg there... the 'perfect' parts that once assembled the 'perfect' body, now laid in a 'perfect' pile upon the floor. Mom never wanted me to destroy my toys but something felt so damn rewarding about dismantling that image.

Maybe it is time we collectively dethroned Barbie from her iconic status and dismantled the one-note beauty ideal she has come to represent. Think of what a different world it would be if beauty was celebrated in all shapes, sizes and ethnicities. We can have that world if we all do our part to raise awareness and use our voices to educate and empower. Use your voice to pass it on today.

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