• Mon, Dec 23 - 11:51 am ET

Awesome Twist On Barbie Adds To This Year’s Important Conversation About Self Esteem

'Barbie: The Dreamhouse Experience' PhotocallIt’s hard to think of a bigger symbol of our culture’s body image crisis than Barbie, who has spent over half a century teetering on impossibly long legs as her enormous breasts propel her forward. This year saw a number of projects and campaigns to take Barbie’s unrealistic proportions down a notch and bring her into a more human level, which opens up a conversation about what Beyoncé is aptly calling “the disease of a nation”–the never-ending and unattainable quest for physical perfection.

In April of this year, Barbie had two different artists render her without her makeup. Eddi Aguirre gave us this version:

And Nickolay Lamm made this version:

While the first image perhaps goes into hyperbolic territory, these are pretty fascinating examples of just how made up Barbie really is. Lamm’s version still portrays a conventionally beautiful figure (well, if you break it down, she’s kind of weird because it’s that crazy cartoonish beauty with enormous eyes), but it really draws attention to the double layer of eyeliner and fake eyelashes that Barbie wears to say, say, outer space. Would it kill Mattel to give their dolls a slightly more natural look?

Later this year, Lamm made an even more striking image:

This figure on the right is Barbie with the proportions of an average 19-year-old. What’s especially jarring about this image is that I have so internalized Barbie as a normal standard (even though I know in my brain that she’s not) that I looked at the shorter figure and thought that she looked off.

Finally, last week Plus-Size-Modeling.com posted a photo on an illustration of a plus-size Barbie-like doll on their Facebook page.

barbie

Per The Huffington Post, “[o]ver 35,000 people have “liked” it, but many have taken issue with the doll’s so-called extreme size.” I don’t really understand what’s so extreme about this body, except that perhaps it differs greatly from our usual conception of Barbie. Yeah, it’s a fat Barbie. Who cares? Commenters, apparently, feel that this fat Barbie isn’t representative of what multiple people referred to as “normal,” which is bullshit because every body is normal. If Barbies have to exist, there should be fat Barbies, short Barbies, Barbies of all races, and a diverse representation of the women in the world.

This year’s conversations about Barbie have been especially interesting in that they sharply point out just how far gone our paragon of beauty is from any actual humans. The fact that I thought Lamm’s portrayal of the 19-year-old girl was “wrong” is a pretty striking message of just how harmful Barbie can be. Of course, Barbie is a symptom of a greater problem, and is certainly one aspect of our harmful cultural narrative. But if we agree that Barbie is a symptom and not the cause, how can we treat the cause without taking care of some of the symptoms?

Barbie is obviously harmful, and as Jamie Peck pointed out, studies have shown that Barbie puts undo pressure on girls as young as five to want to be thin. But getting rid of Barbie’s impossible standards isn’t enough. It’s not just Barbie–young girls and women face innumerable messages that they aren’t good enough, and internalize a concept of acceptable beauty that is simply out of reach for any human. Altering Barbie to fit a more human standard would be an important first step, but it’s simply not enough.

Photos: WENN, Nickolay Lamm, Getty Images, Facebook

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  • Lindsey Conklin

    there should absolutely be multiple versions of barbie–all shapes and sizes!

    • kaimcn

      Exactly! Let’s stop trying to sell one body as The Right Body. We should be celebrating different sizes, colours, genders, hairstyles, body mods (or not!), and ages.

  • scallywag

    Which raises the question what is a healthy guide to a normal looking Barbie doll and why hasn’t the retailer set out to make one to date?

    http://scallywagandvagabond.com/2013/12/plus-size-barbie-ignites-body-image-debate/

  • Dorothy

    Where can I buy these dolls?

  • Elizabeth Alexander

    sorry but i’m gonna call bullshit. if you take your cues about what people “should” look like from a plastic toy you have waaayyyy bigger issues. Barbie isn’t real. she’s allowed to look like that because she’s a toy. I mean by all means add more Barbies if you want but don’t do it under the guise of “helping the children”. Help the children by teaching them to not to base their self-esteem off of an inanimate object.

    • http://www.geekosystem.com/ Victoria McNally

      Much easier said than done. You can do all the right things as a parent and your kid can STILL grow up confused and ashamed of their bodies because of the way our culture tends to commodify a very specific type of female form. Like, no one in my family ever taught me that I was SUPPOSED to look a certain way, but I still felt pretty terrible about myself when I realized that I wasn’t going to look like any the women I saw on television. And I’m a fairly average-sized white girl — IMAGINE what it’s like for girls who deviate even farther from that!

    • Elizabeth Alexander

      but the people you see on TV are real people. Barbie is made of plastic. it’s one thing to not measure up to actual women, but blaming a toy is ridiculous.
      And being a very much plus-size woman i understand what it’s like to not look like the girls on TV. But my family taught me that everyone can be beautiful and even still being beautiful is the least important thing about me. So while it may not be easy, yes it can be done.

    • Anne Marie Hawkins

      I’ve done a lot of reading about research on Barbie & self-esteem in girls under 13, and what I found surprised me. It seems that most girls intuitively recognize Barbie as a caricature, the same way they know that a teddy bear is not really the same as an actual bear. The self-esteem problems come in when they start projecting problems onto the doll – say, cliques excluding them at school, or parents having fights at home – and eventually extrapolating that Barbie doesn’t have those problems so maybe if they were more like her, neither would they. Girls getting to the stage of wanting to “look just like Barbie” is actually extremely rare. (OTOH, girls expressing that they’ve outgrown Barbies by mutilating them? Extremely common. One study claimed that 80% of girls mutilate at least one Barbie doll at some point.)

    • Ri

      Let me guess.
      You’re thin?
      You don’t have image issues?
      Both?
      Or maybe you’re so original, independent and uninfluenced by things around you that YOUR experience should be representative of the everyday life that everyone else should lead?
      You’re so cool, confident and unattached that you can’t think of the benefit a plus sized barbie could have people who aren’t you.
      It’s okay walking goddess of wisdom and high self-esteem
      Most of us on earth get it.

    • Elizabeth Alexander

      wrong on every count i’m afraid. i’m 260+ pounds, which is a constant source of stress and negative body image from time to time. And i don’t think my life is representative of everybody else’s. I’m just saying it seems highly unlikely that a plastic toy can have such great effects on the self esteem of young girls. It can have some, absolutely, but at the end of the day Barbie is just a toy. So adding a plus size Barbie would be pretty irrelevant on uplifting girl’s self esteem. Children are smart enough to know that toys are just toys. If we really want to make a change we should be pointing the fingers at photo-shoppers and people who sell images of actual human bodies that aren’t attainable.

    • Kevin Miskel

      Let me guess
      A boy called you fat at age 9,and you let that define your whole life.
      Why, when it comes to female body issues, more weight = more gooder? What about girls who are naturally tall,thin and (dear god, no) white? They’re made to feel like villains. On the other end, teaching girls that overweight=sexy, or “real” is just as detrimental.
      I’m a man, and I have to live up to the physical standards of Zac Efron, Ryan Reynolds, David Beckham, Hugh Jackman, Channing Tatum, or any number of shredded six packed men. Waa waa, it’s unfair for everybody, get over it.

  • Ricardo Aguilera

    Notice how boys don’t complain as much about he-man or action figures…..maybe girls should learn dolls aren’t real life.

    • Clayton Shuttleworth

      I disagree with this. Growing up, boys are constantly bombarded with images and ideas of what masculinity should look like. I know I was. These images can be incredibly harmful to boys’ self esteem. I believe that girls know that dolls aren’t real life just as much as I knew that the images of men represented through action figures as athletes and warriors aren’t necessarily wholly accurate, nor are they the only acceptable paths for men in society.

    • Ricardo Aguilera

      However men aren’t complaining so much about these depictions even if they are as frequent. I think the truth is superseded by the motives of the women making these objections and perhaps their own insecurities.