Mattel has been facing complaints from activists regarding Barbie’s unrealistic proportions and how the doll’s figure can cause body image and self-esteem issues among young girls. Barbie’s small waist, long legs and unusually large eyes are being blamed in part for promoting unhealthy body proportions and for causing a spike in eating disorders.
Although I am outright terrified of dolls (they remind of cadavers), I never had any problem with a Barbie doll. It did not remind me of a dead body. I was so well aware of how unrealistic its body was that I had no problem playing with it. The doll did not look real, I accepted that it was not real, and I did not think about it any further. Even more so, Barbie was never about the doll itself, for me at least. I could not care less about the unrealistic body. All I cared about were the doll clothes—the long, shimmering dresses, trendy bathing suits and cute winter outfits that I, a southern California girl, never got to wear.
As a child, I was significantly more upset that I did not have a closet that paralleled Barbie’s than I was concerned about not having eyes half the size of my head. The fact of the matter is that Barbie dolls are not meant to be realistic. The doll is not meant to be a physical inspiration for girls, but rather a medium for imagination, creative expression and simple, innocent childhood fun. In fact, the true purpose of the Barbie doll, and any sort of figure in general, lies outside of its proportions, unrealistic or otherwise. In terms of cognitive development, renowned psychologist Jean Piaget argues that from the ages of two through seven, children are in the “preoperational stage” of development, when they learn and develop by representing the world symbolically, a skill which the Barbie enables.
In terms of representation, a Barbie is similar to, although more complex and detailed than, a smiley face. We are all exposed to smiley faces—symbolic of happiness, a job well done and success. A smiley face never lowered anyone’s self-esteem or made someone think less of him or herself for having a crooked and imperfect smile. Children, especially young girls, do not learn to herald the Barbie doll for its figure, but rather use the doll as a way to learn about the roles of humans in society. That is why you can buy a Barbie that is dressed and equipped for a multitude of occupations, including doctor, astronaut or military officer.
In the same vein, Superman and G.I. Joe action figures are never criticized for their portrayal of the male body, which include alarmingly broad shoulders and six-packs any body builder would be jealous of. That is because these characters are not—and should not be—seen as physical inspirations.
Barbie, first sold in 1959, has existed for close to 60 years, yet only recently are we seeing such a spike in eating disorders. Granted, there was a lot less research on eating disorders in the 60s and 70s, but there are plenty of other, more valid aspects of our culture that body issues can be attributed to instead of a Barbie doll. Do not blame these problems on a plastic figure that existed long before body issues, low self-esteem and eating disorders became widespread issues.
Barbie is not a scapegoat, and making allegations against a doll, of all things, is rather pathetic.
By LILIA ABECASSIS