Poor, poor Barbie. She just cannot catch a break. She’s just too….. Barbie. Her hair is too long, her eyes are too big, her waist is too waspish, her legs are too slim, her thighs are too small, her breasts are too perky (and too damn big!), her ass is too high and her weird feet, all curved and ready for stilettos.
Bad Barbie! Wrong body, wrong choice, you traitor!
Personally, I was never a fan of Barbie, since I found her uncomfortable to sleep with. I preferred rag dolls, who are nice and soft and cozy and cuddly. Raggedy Anne was my particular favorite:
Look at her head! Jesus that’s a big head. And those eyes! That hair! And shoes dyed right on the fabric of her feet! Ridiculous. And what is up with that apron? Well, now we know why I spend so much time wearing an apron and bustling in my kitchen. It’s Raggedy Anne’s fault! Her perfect curly locks that are impossible to muss didn’t rub off on me, but hey, we can’t have everything!
Here is Holly Hobby. Another one of my faves. And she is totally in proportion to a real, natural, average human, isn’t she? Her head is wider than her hips! That bonnet. It kills me. I had a sun bonnet when I was a little girl. Robin’s egg blue. I loved it. I guess I have Holly to thank for my skin? No sun damage! Bonnets are a girl’s best friend.
Of course, when I played with my rag dolls, I was always the Mommy. They were my babies, and that is the big difference between dolls and Barbie dolls: dolls inspire nurturing play. Barbie dolls inspire aspirational play. You aren’t Barbie’s mommy – you are either Barbie or one of her friends.
And that’s where the criticism comes in: Barbie dolls are bad for girls because they present unrealistic, unattainable body images that girls are expected to internalize. An artist named Eddi Aguirre took off all of Barbie’s makeup to show just what a tarted up little whore she is, with fairly grotesque results.
Aguirre’s critique fell a little short, since women can, and DO use make-up to dramatically alter their looks. Almost all women enhance their natural beauty with cosmetics, but some women go full spackle, and the effect is rather astonishing. Here are some before and after pics of adult film stars, using make-up to go from Brunhilde to Barbie.
Does playing with Barbies influence women in their decision about how much and what kind of make-up to wear? That is the theory, and the source of anxiety. We’ll come back to this in a bit.
Another artist named Nikolay Lam plays with Barbies a lot, and he alters them to show just how different Barbie is from the average American woman. Here is Barbie compared to the average 19 year old American woman. Barbie is short, squat and has a big ass. She is still wearing a crap-ton of make-up.
Weight: 110 lbs
Bust: 39 inches
Waist: 18 inches
Hips: 33 inches
Shoe size: 3
Average 19 year old American woman:
Weight: 140 lbs
Bust: 32 inches
Waist: 31 inches
Hips: 33 inches
Shoe size: 7
Obviously, Barbie is waaaaaaay out of proportion to the average 19 year old woman, but there are two important things to consider: 1) the average 19 year old is just on the verge of being clinically overweight and 2) who cares if Barbie is out of proportion?
Rather than assume Barbie is some dastardly plot by the capitalist patriarchy to make little girls feel really shitty about themselves, let’s start with the assumption that Barbie looks the way she does because that is what SELLS. Barbie appeals to little girls almost universally. Why is that?
If you go down to page 9 on this report, you will see that children are not born with a natural sense of proportion. They can tell that one pile of Smarties is bigger than another, but it takes a while until they realize which pile is TWICE as big. Proportions must be learned. Five year olds are not great at detecting proportions. By the time they are in the second grade, most of them have it figured out.
So there is one thing: small children are not great at sensing proportions.
Now, let’s consider what proportions humans find particularly appealing.
SQUEE! Whether it’s a human being, a baby frog or a kitten, we are hypnotically drawn towards creatures that have huge heads, giant eyes, chubby cheeks, short limbs, and dramatically different proportions from what they will become.
When those two things are combined, isn’t it obvious why little girls love Barbie? She has proportions they can easily detect and she appeals to the instincts that make us love babies with her huge eyes enhanced with make-up to look even bigger and her giant, baby-proportioned head.
I’ll just wait here for my Nobel Prize in Neuroscience. Jeez, I am racking up the Nobels, aren’t’ I?
There is NOTHING nefarious or wicked about Barbie and she does NOT encourage poor body image in little girls because little girls can’t detect that there is anything amiss with Barbie’s body! She’s just a pretty woman who can do and be just about anything!
And clever little vixens can easily circumvent Barbie’s corporate limitations with their imaginations. Barbie really can do ANYTHING! There is nothing wrong with encouraging little children to set their imaginations free and believe that unicorns are real and mermaids are your friend. Life will kick in soon enough.
Grown women who believe they can do and be anything are a different story. Stuck in perpetual toddlerhood, they fail to see that wishing for a unicorn that farts rainbows will not make it so. A different story altogether.
Let’s turn our attention to boys now. Where is all the teeth-gnashing and despair about the unrealistic body images little boys are confronted with when they play with boy Barbies, also known as “action figures”?
Batman has a body that represents normal human males? Really?
Height: 7 ft
Waist: 30 inches
Chest: 57 inches
Biceps: 27 inches
7 foot tall human
(already extraordinary, but it can happen):
Height: 7 ft
Waist: 30 inches
Chest: 37 inches
Biceps: 12 inches
GI Joe? Oh yeah, he’s pretty realistic. Hey, did you hear the one about the little girl who asks Santa for a Barbie and GI Joe? Santa says, “but little girl, Barbie comes with Ken.” “Nope,” says the little girl, “she hangs out with Ken, but she only comes with GI Joe.”
For the same reason that little girls like Barbie and her weird proportions, little boys like Batman and GI Joe. We won’t even get into Stretch Armstrong. If playing with dolls affects body perceptions so much, what are we to make of Stretch’s abilities?
Poor little boys, crushed by the fact they can’t slamdunk with their 8 foot arms. That would make basketball a whole new sport, wouldn’t it?
Again, GI Joe is an aspirational toy: little boys don’t imagine they are GI Joe’s Daddy –they imagine they are one of his comrades or GI Joe himself. And funny, they don’t seem to be crippled with body anxiety on account of playing with their 57 inch chest buddies.
True story: I decided to be a really progressive parent and encourage my son’s nurturing side by buying him his very own dolly. LittleDude named him Steve.
The most frequent game involved placing Steve as high up in a bush or the lilac trees as LittleDude could reach and then congratulating Steve on how well he could climb. “Good job, Buddy! Look at you! Look how high you are!” LittleDude would encourage Steve to be brave and jump! He would then shake the tree violently until Steve was dislodged and attempt to catch him midair.
Sadly, Steve suffered some fairly serious head injuries and spent a lot of time bandaged up in a shoebox, and we are not optimistic about his future prospects. So much for progressive parenting. LittleDude still has Steve but he mostly just throws him in the air and catches him. LittleDude’s eventual children better have strong stomachs.
Children engage in imaginative play in a way a lot of adults seem to have forgotten. They don’t really notice ridiculous proportions and those sparkling moments when they believe everything and anything is possible are actually one of the most wonderful things about children.
Little boy: Mommy, when I grow up I want to be Superman!
What kind of killjoy shatters a fantasy like that? Life will teach him soon enough that there is no Superman and he can only grow up to be who he is. We don’t encourage little boys to weep tears of self-pity and huddle in a corner when they realize that 26 inch biceps are not really possible. We encourage our sons to take the best that Superman has to offer and remember their childhood dreams fondly.
Little girl: Mommy, when I grow up I want to be Barbie!
Why can’t we do the same for Barbie?
Because our current cultural climate doesn’t encourage women to let go of their childhood fantasies and face reality. Little girls are not supposed to look back on their childhood dreams and cherish the best of them. They are supposed to continue on through life in a state of perpetual denial and immaturity.
Barbie can be anything? So can you, honey!
No, you can’t. Be realistic.
Barbie is tall and pretty and blonde and perfectly made-up? You can be too, honey!
No you can’t, unless of course you ARE tall, blonde and pretty. Oh, and white. Don’t forget white.
Barbie is a caricature. Be a real person.
Barbie has everything and shoes to match? So can you, honey!
No you can’t. Material wealth isn’t even that important anyways. Be practical.
Screaming about the lack of realism in Barbie is really a metaphor for screaming about how unrealistically most women approach life and living and most of all, their own abilities and talents. Barbie’s LACK of realism is exactly what makes her so compelling. She cannot be what she appears to be. The lack of reality in Barbie’s body and proportions asks us to confront our own flaws and delusions. What things do we THINK we can do, but really CAN’T? Barbie’s dishonesty is so unambiguous that it’s hard for us to look at her and not see our own dishonesty.
This is pretty philosophical, but not without precedent. Confronting flawed humans in art and literature and music and poetry and theatre is all about connecting us to ourselves as flawed, and thinking about ways in which we might be better.
Average Barbie takes a girl’s imagination and tells her that she is already perfect. Average is perfect. Average is enough. You are enough, as you are. No need to work or improve or strive. Everyone else can just suck it if they don’t like who you are.
You’re faultless. And your toys should be, too.
I know I’m sounding like a broken record here, but the idea that women are perfect the way they are denies that women are capable of rational assessment of their own flaws, denies that women are capable of accurate self-assessment, denies that women can confront imperfect images and practice introspection, denies that women have the capacity for critical, intelligent thought.
And that is just garbage. Bring me my GI Joes and my Barbies and every other magical, impossible artifact of my childhood. They promised the world, and delivered the truth. And the truth, as they say, is what sets you free.
Don’t destroy the enchantments of childhood. Keep your hands off Barbie. Unless you plan on swapping that lab coat for a ballgown!
Barbie can be anything! I can’t. You can’t. No one can.
And honestly, who wants to be everything? That seems like a lot of work.
Lots of love,