The Barbie Effect

Growing up, I spent the majority of my play time with a Barbie doll in hand. As a four-year-old, I remember playing with my Lifestyle Barbie and getting her ready to attend an imaginary party. I would spend hours fixing her hair and clothes until she looked absolutely perfect. I was so obsessed with Barbies that I would even sew fabrics together into make-believe costumes.

Barbie is iconic. She is easily recognised by her impossibly slender figure, blonde hair and caked-with-make-up face, but she couldn’t have promoted a more quixotic body image. If Barbie was a real woman, she would have an 18-inch waist, 33-inch hips, a 39-inch bust and would be 5’9” tall. She would also weigh 110 lbs, resulting in a BMI of 16.24 which is considered to be anorexic. To explain her unrealistic physique, Kim Culmone, the vice-president of Barbie design, said, “Barbie’s body was never designed to be realistic. She was designed for girls to easily dress and undress,” which really is one heck of an excuse. What’s interesting is Ruth Handler, the creator of Barbie, had a much different intention with the iconic doll. “My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be,” Handler said. “Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.” So I have to question why Barbie is responsible for such a distorted perception of beauty?

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Galia Slayen of Hamilton College created a real-size version of what Barbie would look like (Source: The Huffington Post).

The way Barbie dolls have been advertised has played a role in promoting such an inaccurate representation of beauty. Cue the annoying song and the too bright colours – let’s take a look at the 2016 Star Light Galaxy Doll advertisement! The advert starts with a close up of Barbie’s face. Her eyes are far too big for her face and are lined with eyeliner and mascara. Her delicately arched eyebrows would make any girl jealous. The next scene gives us a glimpse of Barbie’s outfit and, more importantly, her eerily thin body. Her thigh gap is so large that you could probably fit your whole fist through. Her outfit is extremely fashionable and hugs her body so as to accentuate her unrealistic proportions. Then another Barbie doll zooms in who is identical in every way except for her colour. Barbie’s facial features are already setting an unrealistic view of what it means to be beautiful. It’s not possible for eyes to be as large as saucers. Nor is it even probable to naturally have beautifully shaped eyebrows. The way that both dolls in the advert wear fashionable clothing shows that females are expected to look stylish. By targeting a younger audience of females, the advertisement immediately implants misconceptions of beauty which affect the way females think about their own body image. Don’t believe me? I’ll prove it.

Several studies have shown that there is indeed a correlation between Barbie and an unhealthy body image. A study conducted by Dittmar et al found that body dissatisfaction started at a very young age – at five to six years of age – for girls who played or even viewed media (such as advertisements and magazines) with Barbie dolls. Barbie’s unrealistic body proportions were seen as aspirations for young girls. It was also said that these misleading aspirations could lead to horrible consequences such as eating disorders. Doeschka Anschutz and Rutger Engels also conducted a study in which young girls were made to play with either Barbie dolls, Emme dolls and Tyler dolls. Barbie and Tyler dolls represented thin and unrealistic body proportions while the Emme doll represented realistic body proportions. After the girls played with the dolls, they were presented with bowls of chocolate-coated peanuts. It was found that the girls who played with average sized dolls (Emme) “ate significantly more” than the girls who played with thin dolls (Barbie and Tyler). The study suggested that the girls may have been influenced by Barbie to have a thin body and so, eat less.

Barbie’s influence doesn’t stop at children. Some adults are so influenced by Barbie that they attempt to transform their own bodies through plastic surgery. Cindy Jackson spent more than £60,000 on plastic surgery, doing countless facelifts, nose jobs, chemical skin peels, lip injections and more in her quest to look like Barbie (Thomas). In a 2004 CBS interview, Jackson said, “I looked at a Barbie doll when I was 6 and said, ‘This is what I want to look like.’ I think a lot of little 6-year-old girls or younger even now are looking at that doll and thinking, ‘I want to be her.’” Cindy Jackson isn’t the only case who has undergone plastic surgery to look like Barbie. In the past decade, there has been a surge of females with the same goal: Valeria Lukyanova, Nannette Hammond, Blondie Bennet just to name a few. It’s understandable that children are influenced by this phenomenon but the idea that adults allow themselves to be manipulated into thinking that they should mutilate their bodies for an unrealistic image is mind boggling.

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Cindy Jackson’s transformation after undergoing countless plastic surgeries (Source: What’s on Shenzhen).

As a four-year-old, I barely thought about the detrimental effects a doll with an unrealistically thin body could have. I was more concerned about slipping a cute dress onto her body or combing her long, blonde hair. Now, looking back, I think I must have been more affected by Barbie than I previously thought. I have unrealistic standards about my own body shape and I’ve always aspired to have the same cinched waist and huge thigh gap. Even worse, it’s likely that you have felt the same way too. It’s vital for us to understand that as pretty and perfect as she looks, Barbie does not have the ideal body and that she has manipulated the definition of beauty.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Shubhada says:

    What you have written here is an unfortunate reality of the today’s world. As an adult I always questioned Barbie’s authenticity but as a mother I too wanted to have that pretty little thing for my darling daughters- not because I liked it- but because everybody else had it.

    The little girls eventually realize that Barbie cannot be real, but their entire childhood revolves around that magnificent figure, dreaming to have those thin legs…I hope with the introduction of new Barbie the things will change for better.

    Liked by 1 person

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