Mary Dorsey Wanlass, “Barbie’s Body Images,” Feminist Media Studies 1.
The Barbie doll emerged in 1959. Since her beginning, Barbie has sparked controversy among adults evaluating her appropriateness for pre-teen and young girls. While there are many aspects of Barbie that relates to sex roles and cultural perceptions of womanhood and girlhood, this post examines Barbie’s emphasis on appearance and how it is perceived to both reflect and affect cultural perceptions of women’s bodies. While Barbie’s body has been altered only in minor ways since her birth, society has reacted to her body and its implications for young girls in different ways through time.
This video clip refers to some of the ways in which Barbie has infiltrated society. “With over a billion Barbies sold,” Barbie has become a cultural icon.” The name of this video, “The Barbie Effect,” refers to a growing theory that Barbie contributes to an unhealthy view of women and their bodies. According to some researchers, “girls who play with Barbies are more likely to develop eating disorders” (see this). While this correlation may not directly cause eating disorders, it is likely that the image Barbie presents helps to influence and inform young girls on how they should look and behave. Barbie’s cultural fame is evidenced in women who have turned to plastic surgery to “become” Barbie. While most women do not seek to change their appearance to this extreme, many want to “tweak” themselves to fit this white, blonde, Barbie ideal (see post #6 about cosmetic surgery).
One of the biggest initial complaints against Barbie was that she wore “too much eyeliner,” presumably because she “was meant to be older than traditional dolls marketed to preteens.” Barbie emerged during the rise of the “teenager” culture which promoted distinct fashion trends and departments specifically for teenage girls. Even as a new toy, parents worried that their daughters would emulate Barbie’s appearance. That is still a prevalent fear for some parents who are increasingly aware of the potential messages that Barbie’s body sends to girls. As an act of protest and to provide a more “healthy” toy option for young girls, Lammily, who is meant to have the body proportions of an average American woman. She can even get bruises, stretch marks, and acne.
This article and video show the most recent transformation of Barbie in response to cultural pressure to make Barbie reflect greater racial diversity and a wider range of body types. Just earlier this year, Mattel came out with “3 new Barbie sizes: tall, petite and curvy. The new Barbie offerings also include 7 skin tones, 24 hair styles and 22 eye colors.” Many are still critical of this doll, however, because her primary emphasis is still on appearance. Barbie emphasizes the message to women that their first priority is appearance, even if they happen to have a career like Barbie does.
Only in years after her debut was Barbie criticized for her “unrealistic–nay, fatal, if applied to any human counterpart– proportions.” Even while Barbie has adopted a wide range of careers, it is no secret that she, and the girls who play with her, primarily value her appearance. One of the greatest draws of Barbie, and one of the most frequently-performed activities is “dressing her up.” Barbie comes with small hand-held mirrors, cosmetics, and hair accessories. Her most common accessory is clothing. The best-selling doll of all time was “Totally Hair Barbie.”
Marlys Pearson and Paul R. Mullins, anthropologists, studied Barbie’s societal effects through the decades. Barbie exemplifies many contradictions in her image; she is both meant to be sexy and to be a classy role model for young girls.
Mary Wanlass in “Barbie’s Body Images” believes the image of Barbie has “become an icon; she exemplifies female physical perfection in our society. Unlike most dolls, she is not a baby to be mothered. She is not huggable, not squeezable, not comforting. She is hard,…plastic, unrealistic.”