Formal Wear Barbie & Ken

It’s hard to ignore Barbie in any conversation about beauty standards and body image for young girls, and it’s naive not to acknowledge the part that Barbie plays in a much larger narrative that teaches young girls they aren’t good enough. Fast Company interviewed Kim Culmone, the vice president of design for Barbie at Mattel, and she managed to display an absolute lack of awareness of anything rooted in reality.

Saying that “Barbie’s body was never designed to be realistic,” Culmone primarily blames Barbie’s unrealistic proportions on a logistical necessity–apparently Barbie has to have an impossibly small waist and large bust in order to get clothes to fit. Remarkably, I have nothing close to Barbie’s proportions, but I manage to get clothes on every day. But aside from that, Culmone says that Barbie’s body is always evolving, although changing her would be very difficult, because of “the issue of heritage.”

This is a 55-year-old brand where moms are handing clothes down to their daughters, and so keeping the integrity of that is really important. Everything may not always be able to fit every doll, but it’s important to me that the majority of it does, because that was my experience as a little girl. There’s an obligation to consistency. Unless for some reason in the future, there’s a real reason to change the body–because of either a design imperative or functional imperative–heritage is important to us.

So when Culmone says there is as of yet no “objective to change the proportion of Barbie,” she apparently didn’t understand the studies reflecting unrealistic, thin dolls like Barbie’s poor impact on the lives of her customers (Fast Company points to this one from the University of Sussex). In a fascinating display of cognitive dissonance, Culmone references those studies about the influencers of poor self esteem on young girls, but blames it on parents and peers, leaving out Barbie’s significant role. You see, it’s just that the rest of the world doesn’t understand children the way Culmone does. As she explains:

You have to remember that girls’ perceptions are so different than grown ups’ perceptions about what real is and what real isn’t, and what the influences are…Girls view the world completely differently than grown-ups do. They don’t come at it with the same angles and baggage and all that stuff that we do.

This is completely illogical and patently wrong. What world does Culmone live in where childhood experiences don’t contribute to adult baggage? Does Culmone think we all just woke up one day feeling shitty about ourselves and found Barbie to be a handy scapegoat?

Barbie certainly gets a lot of grief when it comes to young girls, when of course we know that Barbie is one voice in thousands that send young girls sexist, degrading messages about their own bodies and worth. To blame poor body image on Barbie alone is reductive and ignorant, and exonerates the multitudes of industries that benefit off of women feeling poorly about themselves. But Culmone is right–Barbie is a heritage thing, passed down from mother to daughter. And unless Mattel is willing to address the very real implications of their dolls, women will continue to pass down negative sense of self worth from one generation to another. Hating yourself is inherited, too.