The Barbie Effect

Everyone knows that Barbie isn’t a particularly realistic-looking doll, and much has already been said about the notion that Barbie promotes an unhealthy and ridiculous ideal of beauty that women can’t possibly live up to. But that doesn’t stop many of them from trying. If you watch enough TV, I imagine you may have seen some of the women who have taken these ideals to the extreme. But aside from the outliers, how has the introduction and continuation of this doll affected the general population?

The Real Barbie

Barbie probably wasn’t thought up the way you expected. As reported by Time:

In 1956, Ruth Handler, an American businesswoman, was vacationing in Switzerland when she came across Bild Lilli, a doll that, unlike popular baby dolls at the time, had long, shapely legs and wore heavy makeup. Lilli, in fact, was based on a prostitute in a postwar German cartoon, but Handler was inspired. She bought three Lilli dolls, returned to California and in 1959 created the world’s first Barbie doll.

Indeed, Barbie came loosely from a German cartoon prostitute. But as we all know, it became much more. With the demand so high for these dolls came more supply, and eventually people started to wonder if the culture of these dolls were socializing its customers in certain ways. This curiosity soon came from scientists, and there is now a vast amount of research done on Barbie. For example, researchers in 2003 suggested that Barbie’s measurements would be 32-17-28, if she were actually a life-size woman. To compare an average woman with a Barbie doll, I’m going to include a lot of images in this post. Notice, in particular, how slim the waist is.

 

In their book “Consumer Culture, Identity, and Well-Being,” authors Helga Dittmar and Emma Halliwell argue that girls compare themselves to Barbie from a young age, and this is not a good thing for their self-esteem. They write the following:

Barbie doll is the cultural icon of female beauty, with 99% of 3- to 10-year-olds in the US owning at least one Barbie (Rogers, 1999). Yet, Barbie is so exceptionally thin that, in a flesh-and-blood woman, her weight and body proportions are not only unattainable, but also unhealthy. This is worrying because dolls, such as Barbie, can provide “aspirational role models” for young children (Pedersen & Markee, 1991; Turkel, 1998).

They also mention that if Barbie were in fact a real person, her waist would be 39% smaller than an anorexic patient’s. For some, however, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible (…even though it’s impossible); it just means that it’s a challenge. The first thing you need is an imagine. And that shouldn’t be too hard, because that’s the whole point of buying a doll in the first place; to make believe.

Barbie has indeed had her fair share of controversies – some of them justified; some of them… not so much. One of the latter examples is from Saudi Arabia authorities who banned the doll because they say it is a threat to their morality. Oh, and because they think she’s an evil Jew. Or as they would say, a Jew.

Because, obviously, Barbie dolls just scream "Jewish!"

Oh Barbie, What Have You Done?

A more legitimate concern is the one that advertisers still struggle with – the “girls suck at math” stereotype. It’s not just about math, but basically any science in general. The stereotype is pervasive, and many companies have had to apologize for such messages. Ehow.com had this to say:

In [Barbie’s] world, the ideal woman is focused on fashion and appearance. When the first Teen Talk Barbie came out in 1992 […] she blurted out phrases like “Math is tough.” This reinforces the concept, in young girls’ minds, that boys are better at math and science than girls. Barbie didn’t originate such concepts, but through her focus on appearance and an unhealthy physique, she reinforces negative stereotypes about girls and women.

Since over a billion Barbie dolls have been sold, it’s safe to say that Barbie is quite a culturally important icon. In fact, Barbie inspired the American woman Cindy Jackson to go through a dramatic phase of operations that changed her appearance forever. Most people agree that she does indeed look better, but she became the most operated-on person the world had ever seen.

As much as Barbie is geared towards a female audience, the Barbie-inspired Jackson had done some inspiring of her own. Meet Tim Whitfield-Lynn. He had seen her on TV, and was so moved that he decided he wanted to be a Ken doll himself. In fact, he was so clever that he changed his name to “Miles Kendall” (as in “Ken doll”). He got his own surgery, and now looks several operations closer to the plastic dolls.

And if that doesn’t terrify you, then the one who beat her record, Sarah Burge, might. This is a surgery addict so obsessed with looks that she gave her daughter a boob-job voucher… at seven years old. She also taught her to pole-dance at that age. With a total number of operations over 100, you would think she would be done, but she says it’s not enough yet. She’s so obsessed with appearances that she even had her 15-year-old step-daughter use botox, making her the youngest botox recipient in Britain. I can’t imagine the conversations Burge has with her daughters regarding this.

"All right darlings, it's time to start thinking about your future"

But that’s not even as bad as the mother who gave her eight-year old botox for a pageant; or another one who gave her seven-year-old daughter not only botox, but also a lip injection, as well as tattooed-fucking-eyebrows. Wow. One day she’s going to grow up and really express herself facially. There’s an ongoing investigation in these matters, and we can only hope they are hoaxes; but what we know is true is that some parents actually are hurting their kids, on revolting reality TV shows like “Toddlers & Tiaras,” in order to get fame or money.

Then there are the better-known celebrities, like Lil’ Kim, who went from “hot” to “who” after her nose-job. But can we conclude that these incidents necessarily had anything to do with Barbie? Should we really be blaming the doll? Maybe, maybe not. But it should be noted that in order to stay with the times, the newest Barbie dolls to hit the stores caused a little bit of a stir a few weeks ago because their shoulders and neck are covered with tattoos. So unfortunately parents have to consistently concern themselves with Barbie. All though, as Yahoo reports:

No doubt, there are plenty of people who will object to the doll, but this is not a mainstream Barbie product intended for young girls. The $50 doll is being marketed to adult collectors. Only 7,400 were made and, according to the Tokidoki [the manufacturer’s] Website, they are all sold out.

We surely can’t blame Barbie for everyone of these people’s plastic surgery – and, in fact, I am not suggesting that plastic surgery is necessarily a bad thing – but Barbie never said “it’s okay not to be thin” or “let’s not worry about looks, but brains!” Such a message is laughable to doll designers, and I’m sure there would be virtually no interest in that among consumers. That’s simply because people love the idea of a fantasy. Girls don’t say “I hope I grow up to be intelligent!” They say “I hope to be pretty,” because the women who get whisked off their feet in all the movies and TV shows are beautiful, not rocket scientists. Thanks, Disney.

If Barbie was real, I’m sure things would look very different from the fairy tales.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bottom Line

In the end, I don’t want to pick on Barbie, because negative socialization isn’t going to happen by a single product. It takes a village to convince you you’re not good enough. And unfortunately, that the village is full of common advertisements and popular culture telling you just that.

Barbie may be a large contributor, but it’s just one symptom of a society that is gradually becoming more invested in appearance. The internet has turned us into even more visual creatures than we already were evolved to be. She is probably part of the reason girls feel the need to make themselves better looking, but she can’t take all the credit. There are plenty more sources telling girls what beauty really looks like.

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