Not Just Child's Play: A Study of Barbie's Effect on Self-Image
Watch the clock for one minute. During that small interval of time, 150 Barbie dolls were sold. Over a billion dolls have been sold since the product was launched in 1956 (Goldstein 1). For a toy which grosses 1. 9 million dollars in sales every year, one can see the enormous impact the Barbie craze has had all over the world (Goldstein 1). Not only has this craze made the doll become a childhood icon, but it has also aided in the diminishing self-image of girls worldwide.
The doll may seem like a small, harmless toy just like any other plaything a child would enjoy, but studies have proven otherwise. The Barbie doll is notorious for her 42-18-33 inch, out of proportion body shape (Weiss 27). She flaunts herself in revealing, skin-tight clothing for all the young girls to mimic. In fact, the Barbie has branded the image of the perfect body into young girls' minds, prematurely causing damage to their self-esteem as they grow-up.
The distorted reality of the childhood icon, Barbie, has forced many adolescent girls to grow up with a negative self-image. Barbie came to life in 1956 when the co-founder of Mattel Toys, Ruth Handler, was taking a vacation in Switzerland (Baldwin 1). The Barbie doll was "an alternative to the paper dolls of the day" and was "based on a curvy blond from an adult comic strip" (Baldwin 1). Barbie has had more than eighty careers, including everything from housewife to astronaut (Wood 4). The black Barbie was not introduced until 1980, twenty-four years after the original Barbie came out (Wood 4). Barbie's family consists of her sisters named Skipper, Stacie, Kelley and Tutti; a brother named Todd; cousins named Francie and Jazz ie; and best friend named Midge (Kehoe 1).
She even has an unbelievably stable relationship with her boyfriend. "She and Ken have been romantically involved since 1961, but have never married" (Kehoe 1). The family of the Barbie creator has experienced many hardships due to this fantasy doll. After the introduction of the Barbie doll, Ruth's daughter Barbara experienced almost overnight popularity. After being called Barbie for so many years, even she asked her friends and relatives to discontinue the use of that name following the release of the Barbie doll (Wood 3). In reality, Barbie and Ken were brother and sister, being named after Ruth's daughter and son, respectively.
Ken Handler, Ruth's son, also experienced the pains of fame when visiting his in-laws. When Ken arrived at their Wyoming home, he was greeted by "a long line of pre-pubescent girls on the doorstep" (Wood 3). The Barbie craze had begun, and already many girls saw these Barbie characters as real-life idols. Barbie's measurements have been discussed time and time again.
She is 11 and half feet tall, weighs 11 ounces, and in reality would be 5'6" weighing 110 pounds (Kehoe 1). "If Barbie were a real woman, she would have a 42 inch bust, an 18 inch waist, and 33 inch hips. An average woman has a 35 inch bust, a 29 inch waist, and 37 1/2 inch hips" (Weiss 27). Knowing this, it is not difficult to see how distorted these proportions are from real life. She is "built to the same proportions as Pamela Lee Anderson" (Garfield 1). Her face, although flawless, was not liked by her own creator, but her body "'was another story,' " with "breasts, a tiny waist and long, tapering legs" (Wood 2).
Newsweek featured Barbie's newest form where the "icon with the impossibly long legs and gravity-defying bosom" can be the "most glamorous identity of all" (Springen 1). Barbie's hair and face can now even be personalized to look like her owner (Springen 1). Her low level of intelligence has also been a major complaint over the years. She is not much of a talker. She recently found herself at the center of controversy when she was programmed to say, "Math class is tough" and "Let's go shopping," among other statements that critics said reinforced an unfortunate stereotype of young women as unintellecutal. (Kehoe 2) Barbie has supposedly become smarter over the years following the production of Paleontologist Barbie.
This makes her less of a "dumb blond" figure to girls (Goldstein 2). It seems strange that a grown adult could believe that this addition could solve the problems that past dolls have caused in girls's elf-image over the years. These controversies have led to major overhauls in the design of the Barbie. Throughout time the Barbie doll has evolved in countless ways.
She began as a doll of many faults. When she returned from the production plant in Japan, she had oriental eyes (considered "a real crisis") and nipples. This was not prospected to go over well with the general public, so one of the executives used a nail file to shave the nipples down (Wood 3). This was perceived as the company's largest obstacle to overcome. Little did they know of the complaints that would lie down the road, which would force them to make drastic changes to the doll's figure. Over the course of her life she has now included "a funky new look: bared midriff, tattoos" and other qualities to add to her already debatable appearance (Baldwin 1).
To satisfy the anti-Barbie activists, she has undergone a "full-body makeover" and has been given a "more athletic shape" ("Barb" 1). This is great news to hear, but it is not exactly clear what this healthier and more athletic shape entails. The bad part of this change, though, is the toy company's reasoning behind the makeover. A spokesperson for the company stated that "in 1959, the hourglass figure was right. Not anymore" ("Barb" 1). She was supposedly made "more Sandra Bullock then Dolly Parton" when she was reformed into a doll with a smaller bust and a thicker waist (Goldstein 2).
Meanwhile, Mattel ironically added lines of supermodel and lingerie barbies (Suhay 1). Mattel also took away some of her make-up and have added a larger smile on her face (Goldstein 2). Forming her into this Bullock-like body shape is an attempt to make her appear more realistic, yet the new mold for their average girl is still a movie star. The doll cannot be made more realistic when she is still based off of a Hollywood icon. Self-image is one of the most important factors in a maturing adolescent girl's life; this self-image is characterized through the culture, models in the media and men. All of these characteristics play a small part in the Barbie doll.
In our culture, as girls mature, their entire existence revolves around the way they look. "The color of their hair, the shape of their bodies, and the texture of their skin become as important as their minds and hearts (sometimes more important) " (Weiss 7). One woman looks back on her younger years and remembers her diminishing self-image. "I had curly hair; everyone else had straight hair.
I played tennis and the cello; the 'popular' girls played basketball and the clarinet" (Barnhill 1). The female ideal is very strict, and a nearly impossible criterion to match. This body standard includes all of the following to reach perfection: "thin, tall, white, and blond" with "small noses, long shiny hair, hairless limbs, big breasts, full lips, wide-set eyes, and flawless skin" (Weiss 12). The American culture has set standards of beauty based on these things, but our culture cannot be blamed because it is too abstract. People cannot blame something that is not really there.
Culture is not a person or thing. Naomi Wolf says that 'the beauty backlash against feminism is not a conspiracy, but a million separate individual reflexes... that coalesce into a national mood weighing women down; the backlash is all the more oppressive because the source of the suffocation is so diffuse as to be almost invisible.' (Weiss 15) This invisible source is the culture we live in today, and this cultural standard can be seen in the general appearance of the Barbie doll. Models in the media have sent countless girls into fits of depression and eating disorders. Through Hollywood, women have become much more aware of the perfect beauty standard that is predestined for them.
This occurred most when "Hollywood films emerged, and the bombshell was born" (Weiss 26). These Hollywood images taught girls that they "will be successful and happy only if they are beautiful" (Weiss 7). The public television stations have recently realized the severity of the issue, and has aired special forums of experts discussing the effect the media has on girls's elf-esteem (Goodwin 1). Many actresses have been cut from films "because they " re not the right 'type,' regardless of their talent. They get the message that says it doesn't matter who you are as long as you look good" (Weiss 41). The emphasis put on this model appearance, much like that of the Barbie, is in vain.
Much money and time is put into those perfect looking models to make them look as good as they do (Weiss 13). Most magazines use the retouching method in their pictures. With this method, "any skin imperfections are erased away. Cellulite vanishes. Dark circles under the eyes are lightened.
Designers can even slice inches off model's thighs" using their computers (Weiss 37). These methods and Hollywood's standards make women see a false portrait of beauty and make them "want to look like a cartoon" or even a doll (Weiss 37). Men view women with the same strict guidelines as Hollywood does when it comes to being beautiful. They are often attracted to the Barbie doll look-alikes. Carla Barnhill remembers boys being the piece that finalized her negative self-image (Barnhill 1). This becomes evident in her testimonial saying, "I didn't get dates, and I wasn't in the top echelons of popularity, all because I didn't look quite right.
To me, that seemed to be the only answer" (Barnhill 2). Many women face this dilemma in their lives because of a theory called the "male gaze" (Weiss 29-30). This says that women are constantly looking at themselves as if they are being "surveyed" by a man, instead of really looking at themselves as people (Weiss 29-30). "This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves" (Weiss 29). Women do this subconsciously, so they are never aware of the obstacle that they must overcome. All they are really aware of are their faults and lack of beauty.
This unattainable standard of beauty leaves women struggling with a negative self-image from attempting to measure up to the perfect model or Barbie-like body. The direct effect the Barbie dolls have had on the self-image of girls is shown in the unrealistic standards they set, the anti-feminist views they portray, and the extreme cases they have incited. One angry parent scolds Mattel saying, "[... ] while I still don't know what you are thinking when you make these decisions, I know what your products are leading our children to think or not to think" (Suhay 2). This parent has witnessed the unrealistic standards of beauty that this doll has set for her child. Barbie is seen as "anything but real" because she does not have to partake in daily women's jobs like childcare, housework or cleaning (Hooks 2).
Unfortunately, many children see Barbie as a childhood idol, leading her to be referred to as a "self-esteem destroyer" (Baldwin 2). She has also become a "reviled symbol of all that is vain and venal and superficial in our society" (Garfield 2). These accusations may not be too far off, being that the original Barbie was derived from a men's cartoon, encompasses "fantasy proportions," and debuted as the first "toy to have breasts" (Wood 3). "The Barbie ideal perpetuates unrealistic notions of beauty and material standards" (Garfield 2). Stefanie Iris Weiss, author of The Beauty Myth: A Guide for Real Girls, believes that women have been "dealing with our feelings of inadequacy since our first Barbie" (8). Feminists have also rallied for the improvement or overhaul of the Barbie ideal.
They say that these "tacky, shallow, and fluffy" dolls are soon to be "limited editions in the female of the species" and will soon be outgrown (Suhay 2). The feminists charge Ruth Handler with designing dolls that "were traced over a male ideal of what a woman should be" (Wood 3). But, Mattel complains that she is "an ideal mannequin for all those party dresses -- and an easy target for feminists" (Springen 2). They asked to be targeted, though, with bold statements made against changing Barbie's shape. Handler said "the idea of putting a prom dress on the squat, big-bellied dolls that were then available was 'ludicrous'" (Wood 2).
Another critic states that most girls wouldn't want to play with dolls that are more realistically proportioned, for they wouldn't be as attractive (Springen 2). An executive from Mattel, Lisa Mc Kendall states that the Barbie is all "'about fantasy and dreaming. And the fun of seeing ourselves in plastic perfection'" (Springen 2). The Barbie has forced people to extremes with its questionable appearance.
The Super Model Barbie is made of "silk stone to give them a more sculpted look" (Suhay 2). Apparently, "even Barbie wasn't flawless enough to be a supermodel" (Suhay 2). Girls look at their Barbie and see something that is unbelievably perfect, but the toy companies continue to improve the flawless doll. This puts an idea in girls' minds that nothing is ever good enough to be beautiful. Barbie has also fit the mold of a "sex doll" for many people (Wood 3). This idea has rooted from her appearance and her role in a short story called "Sick Puppy," where one character is a "Barbie fetishist" (Suhay 2).
Strangely enough, the Barbie has brought in some real life copycats as well (Kehoe 2). Among the most unbelievable cases is Cindy Jackson who travels through Germany and England imitating this childhood dream doll (Kehoe 2). She allegedly "spent two years and $100, 000 on plastic surgery in order to look like [Barbie]" (Kehoe 2). This alone proves the actual effect Barbie dolls have on women of all ages. The Barbie has negative effects in areas other than the United States. Most amazingly, the dolls have been deemed "controversial in Puerto Rico" and have been "banned in Iran" (Wood 4).
The government of Iran has changed the whole look of the dolls, naming them Dara and Sara and dressing them "head to toe in the black chador" (Wood 4). Their government is anti-"western style," and Barbie is believed her to be a "corrupting influence" (Wood 4). While these dolls are to bring imagination and beauty to the average girl, they bring along the baggage of self-doubt and controversial biases of beauty that many girls struggle with throughout the years. This is, in no way, an attempt to blame Barbie for every depressed girl and every case of negative self-image, but she has been proven to play a definite role in the diminishing self-esteem of many girls.
As girls play with their favorite toy, they become attached to it and it becomes part of them. The distorted reality of the childhood icon, Barbie, has forced many adolescent girls to grow up with a negative self-image. The Barbie sets the culturally accepted standard of beauty into a child's mind at an early age. Not only are the standards ludicrous, but they also turn once stable girls into emotionally unstable teens. The Barbie portrays the dream body with her unattainable, and quite unhealthy, 42-18-33 inch measurements (Weiss 27). A girl's self-image comes directly from the objects that she surrounds herself with.
This, unfortunately, involves the media, belongings or toys, and men. All of these variables have been proven to diminish the self-esteem of many girls throughout the world. It would not be a tragedy to change the outward appearance of the Barbie doll if it could make the life of even one girl a little bit easier. The dolls are ridiculously out-of-proportion and need to become standardized to the times. It is unfortunate that the doll that I grew to love as a child has brought in so much controversy.
After researching, though, I am convinced that the dolls do play an important role in a maturing of a young girl's self-image. With all of the problems such as depression and anorexia that have become rampant in today's world, it is a wonder that no one noticed this problem sooner. Anything that can help some of these girls who are experiencing that kind of self-hate is well worth the extra time and money. Changing the Barbie to look a little less perfect and a little more real would not just make the entire line of toys a little less vain. It may also show young girls how beautiful they are, no matter how different their appearance is from that of their Barbie doll..