Becoming Barbie

By: Caitlin Easter

From a very young age we are exposed to Barbie. From this early age we learn—and in turn internalize— the values and lessons of “health” as displayed by what we are exposed to. Barbie is the epitome of what children, especially little girls, are taught to want to be—thin yet disproportionately curvy, with blonde hair and a consistently perfect life. And even once we are grown, the ideologies instilled in us via Barbie never quite fade.  The society we live in is heavily influenced by consumer culture, and we are taught that we can also achieve what Barbie has if we are willing to spend the money to get there. If we don’t like our face shape we can invest in plastic surgery or even contouring products in order to change our face shape, if we have a problem with our bodies, we have millions of options of plans and regimes we can buy into in order to achieve the ideal Barbie physique.

However, Barbie’s shape has its own issues.. The South Shore Eating Disorders Collaborative affirms the unrealistic body expectations put forth by Barbie, stating that “if Barbie was an actual woman, she would be 5’9” tall and would weigh “110 lbs.” Due to this, “Barbie would have a BMI of 16.24 and fit the criteria for anorexia.” They also assert that due to her extremely unhealthy figure, she would “likely not menstruate” and that “she’d have to walk on all fours due to her proportions.” We are, however, never told that Barbie’s shape is unrealistic and unachievable, we just go our whole lives wondering why we can’t reach this idealized standard.

Past the inherently subliminal messages that were passed on through Barbie, in 1963 a group of Barbie dolls—including most famously, Slumber Party Barbie—came with a scale permanently set to 110 pounds along with a book named How To Lose Weight that included a single page with the words “DON’T EAT!” displayed in capital letters. How did Mattel, the toy company that manufactures Barbie, think that this was a good message to feed to their young audience? With such a platform comes a social obligation to do good, or more simply, to not destroy the body image of young children all across the world. Barbie was literally teaching little girls that starving themselves was the proper way to reach their goal weight, and we wonder why most members of society have such deeply-rooted issues with their body’s appearance.

As long as we live in a culture where it is okay not to address these issues, they will never be fixed.  As of late we have seen the appearance of bigger Barbies, but the fact that they need to be advertised as being “bigger Barbies” instead of just “Barbies” highlights the fact that there is something inherently better about being unachievably skinny. There is nothing inherently healthy about Barbie and her lifestyle, and if we let our children continue to play with these toys without at least teaching them positive body image first, we will never see an end to these issues.

Yes, Barbie has a reputable image, but when Barbie is teaching children not to eat in order to maintain her “ideal” figure, is she really the role model we want to give our extremely malleable children?

Black Dolls Matter

ByImage courtesy of Flickr. Korrien Hopkins

Dolls play a pivotal role in the development of girls. I remember going to Toys R Us with my family to use the gift cards our uncle had given us for Christmas. I remember going through the aisle looking for that Easy Bake Oven I had been anxious to get. After I got it, I went to the doll section. I glanced through the dolls looking for one that resembled me. No Luck. So grabbed a doll from the long selection of white dolls. My grandma came over with my brothers and asked me if there were any black dolls. “No,” I responded. She quickly found an employee and kindly asked them if they had any ethnic dolls. The employee helped us look through the dolls and checked in back. Unfortunately, they had no luck in finding a black doll. I spent the rest of the money on something else. I was a bit disappointed but quickly got over it. I learned my importance and worth from my mother. What my mother didn’t tell me I found on my own. Thanks to community, to black media, and my spiritual interpretation; I have been greatly influenced by the black excellence I see. That I am pretty and important but, why is this something I had to find on my own?

Positive self-images should be poured into children. I can clearly see why it is important for stores to sell black dolls. Playtime Projects is an organization that collects toys for homeless children. “Author Debbie Behan Garrett explains, “When a young child is playing with a doll, she is mimicking being a mother, and in her young, impressionable years, I want that child to understand that there’s nothing wrong with being black. If black children are force-fed that white is better, or if that’s all that they are exposed to, then they might start to think, ‘What is wrong with me?’ By providing children with African-American dolls that reflect their beauty, we can help to instill in them a positive self-image.”

In my psychology class we have talked about the “Doll Study.” This was a study that’s was done in 1939 by psychologists Kenneth & Mamie Clark, it examined black children’s preferences for white and black dolls and found that the children tended to find the white doll to be “nicer” and more enjoyable to play with. Perhaps fewer people, though, are aware that this study was repeated in 2005 by the then 17-year-old Kiri Davis. She found similar results to the original study. While Dr. Thelma Dye of the Northside Center for Child Development cautions that these results should not lead to the assumption that all black children suffer from low self-esteem, she encourages continued exploration of the meaning of these studies.

Self-representation matters! Children should be able to think highly of themselves and see that they are thought highly of in society. Whether they are of African decent, European decent, Hispanic, or Asian, a child should be able see their culture present in the world. The United states is a country full of many different cultures and I believe those cultures should be represented and embraced in all communities. It should be easy to locate a variety of dolls that represent a wider spectrum of ethnicities wherever you may go.  Children should be able to see dolls of all shades because that is the refection of the world.

Barbie’s Not-So-Positive Influence

Photo by Matthew Rolston

By Emily Mathis

One of the most read blogs on our site is from a while ago and is about Barbie’s positive influence. While, I agree that Barbie has some positive effects, I wonder if they outweigh the negative effects she has on body image? Recently I came across this picture and article about the amount of plastic surgery this woman would need to look like Barbie.

I found the picture thought provoking. What messages and images are we sending to little girls and boys, for that matter, about what a female’s body should look like? Are there women out there striving for this unattainable ideal?

I am left feeling confused. Should we discourage playing with one of America’s favorite toys? Or should we hope that messages of body acceptance are loud enough to get through?

I think of all the hours I spent playing with Barbie when I was young. Then I think about all the struggles I have had with body image throughout my teens and now into my twenties.  Is there a correlation?

According to the article, which mainly focuses on how Barbie affects plastic surgery numbers, there is a correlation between our culture’s distorted view of beauty and the ideal body and plastic surgery rates. With 5% of plastic surgeries being done under the age of 20 and over 13 million body parts being altered last year it seems that something or someone is having a major effect on women’s lives.

Barbie has been around since 1959. That’s over 50 years of girls and boys who grew up with Barbie. If you look at all the different Barbies, they all are thin and perfect. This can set a very unrealistic ideal for what a woman should look like. And it doesn’t just affect girls. Young boys who see their sisters or playmates playing with the doll may grow up to think that is what a woman should look like.

Female body image is a precarious thing. Besides Barbie there are the Disney princesses, who are also very beautiful by society’s standards and thin as well. Fairytales and Barbie are strong influences in young girls’ lives. I can’t count how many times I played with my Sleeping Beauty Barbie doll or how many times I watched Cinderella. Luckily, I never considered plastic surgery but what about the girls and young women out there with access to plastic surgery who think that looking like one of their childhood playmates is the key to getting everything they wanted?

I am not blaming Barbie or the princesses for all of this but I think they play a role in rising rates of plastic surgery and eating disorders. I think that there needs to be a serious look at what images and messages are being put out there. It seems like Barbie gets a lot of play while messages of self-love and body acceptance don’t.

With eating disorders posing a constant threat and general dissatisfaction with their bodies, can young girls and women really afford to have Barbie as any kind of a role model?

Barbie's Positive Influence

Barbie – just the name alone is epic.  Images of a glamorous doll with long blonde hair, a tiny waist, and a big bust, come to mind whenever someone mentions the name. She has captured the attention of so many people for the past 50 years, especially young girls who often want to be just like her and look just like her.  For the past month, the Women’s Center has been hosting events across campus examining Barbie’s role in society and her influence on young girls.  Tomorrow at the Toy and Miniature Museum, we will be hosting “Barbie: Love Her or Leave Her?”  The event will address the way some people played with Barbie growing up, and how that may have influenced how they feel about her now.  We’ll even be showing a short video of what some UMKC folks think about Barbie. 

So this event got me thinking about my own childhood and the way I played with Barbie.  What influence did she have on me?  My childhood wasn’t too long ago, and I do still remember having buckets full of Barbies and playing with them when I was a little girl.  My Barbies were all different skin tones.  My mother wanted me to understand diversity through my dolls, so I would play with them as if they were different races.  The way I saw all the different skin tones that Barbie had, reflected the diversity I saw if my friends growing up. So for that, I think Barbie had a pretty good influence on me.

Growing up, I never thought deeper about Barbie.  All I was worried about was whether or not Barbie had all her accessories and looked pretty once I clothed her. I never once thought that I should strive to look like Barbie or that she was the epitome of feminine beauty. Barbie was just a doll; that was it.  I enjoyed playing with her and she made me happy, so I think my experiences were very positive. 

I’ve read some blogs and heard many discussions regarding Barbie’s bad influence on young girls and their body image.  Her super thin figure, elongated legs, and big bust do reflect an unrealistic body shape for anyone.  Perhaps some young girls have looked at Barbie and imagined looking like her.  Perhaps in some of these cases, this desire has grown into unhealthy obsessions and girls have turned to extreme measures to transform their bodies to look like Barbie.  But for me, this was never the case.  For me, it was more about what Barbie had and what she had achieved that had more of an influence on me.

Barbie had it all, so who wouldn’t want to live the Barbie life? She had all the nice sports cars, she lived in luxurious homes, she had lots of friends, and she was accomplished in several professional careers.  And did I mention her wardrobe?  A shopaholic’s dream!  Sounds like the good life to me! I believe that Barbie is a great figure to have in our society, but it should be understood that she isn’t real.  She’s fun to play with and she encourages little girls (and boys) to use their imagination and dream big.  I think, like me, many young girls who played with Barbie realized that she is just a doll and they were more influenced by her independence, career aspirations, and the joy she brought to us as we were growing up. 

So please come to our event tomorrow at the Toy and Miniature Museum at noon and let us know how you played with Barbie growing up and how you feel about her now.  It should be an interesting discussion.