In Defence of Barbie (July 13, 2013)

For my July 13 article about cultural criticisms of Barbie, In Defence of Barbie, either click here or keep on readin’!


People love to hate Barbie.

We can count (it seems) on a story every year or so parsing just how “real” is Mattel’s signature doll; how her unattainable proportions make young women anxious and drive them to disordered eating patterns. Time and again pseudo-scientific studies draw conclusions such as: “If she were a real woman with those proportions, Barbie wouldn’t be able to walk,” and “this unrealistic image of womanhood gives little girls eating disorders.”

Everybody wants to change Barbie.

Now a Pittsburgh-based artist has weighed in with yet another attempt at a Barbie makeover. Nokolay Lamm announced a prototype of so-called “average Barbie” — taking his lead from that always inspiring source, beloved by all playful children: data sets from the Centers for Disease Control.

Lamm’s doll is shorter, squatter, rounder and thicker. She’s got athletic glutes, and she’ll never achieve the much vaunted “thigh gap.” Next to Mattel’s doll, “average Barbie” has the wrists of a roofer from the days before nail guns came along.

With a Barbie addiction behind me, and a lifelong journey with an eating disorder ahead of me, this latest ado about America’s favourite plastic beach babe really struck a chord.

Let’s first deal with the question of fantasy: for some reason Barbie has been selected from among thousands of toys to be a lightning rod for the interface between reality and fantasy. With the possible exception of toy guns, we impute an inordinate degree of influence and agency to this one little piece of moulded plastic.

Barbie, in short, is treated as “real.” But there’s a difference between what adults chose to turn into an academic discussion and how children play with an object. Most kids’ toys operate on the level of fantasy, and Barbie’s no different.

Surely Barbie’s palatial pink mansion is about as realistic these days as her teeny waistline. And what about that magenta corvette? Are we setting our little girls up for self-loathing because their future may not include a convertible sports car? We disregard that it may be a little unrealistic that Barbie is a doctor, a lawyer, a model, a surfer and a chef, but give her thin wrists and that is damaging to young minds.

Collectively, we have no problem with fantasy.

Is Superman’s cape to blame for ill-fated adventures in human flight? And why haven’t I seen any young Harry Potter fans attempting to rocket around on a broom? We tolerate (and even enjoy) fantasy, one way or another, virtually every day.

If you think about it, even our real-life sports heroes don’t, for the most part, represent realistic body images.

In short, Barbie just isn’t as “real” and/or influential as pop-culture analysts make her out to be. There’s no empirical evidence suggesting a strong link between “playing Barbies” and self-loathing. Across the board funding for young girls’ sports is strong; there are more little girls than little boys in summer soccer leagues.

Indeed, along these lines Barbie’s absurd proportions may be the best argument for her relatively innocuous influence over young girls. Kids get empirical verification each and every day that, for example, brooms don’t fly. This is why we count on them not jumping from great heights with brooms in hand. So why should we ignore the fact that little girls get empirical verification, each and every day, that 17-inch waistlines aren’t realistic.

Barbie didn’t give me my eating disorder, and if you look around you’ll find that there doesn’t seem to be an epidemic of unrealistic thinness among the multiple generations of adult women raised on Barbie. As far as I can tell all Barbie “gives” is a platform for exposure and pedestrian analysis to the odd artist.

The best (or worst) example of pedestrian analysis is explicit in Lamm’s decision to go with “average.” Average is, by definition, average: almost nobody hits the numbers on the dot. If you’re hoping to characterize a “realistic” human form then how on earth would it make sense to create a doll from abstract statistics.

“Average” is no less a human-created typology than is Barbie herself.

I have an eating disorder, and the ‘reason’ I have an eating disorder is complex, complicated, and something of a-riddle-wrapped-in-a-conundrum-topped-with-an-enigma — even to my doctors.

It just isn’t that simple.

And I’m no historian, but I know that eating disorders and low self-esteem predate Barbie’s 1959 birth date. In fact, anorexia can be traced back to at least the 12th century, known in the past as ‘the wasting disease.’ Moreover, the concept of an ‘ideal’ female physique is surely as old as mankind itself. We have never and will never be blind to beauty, Barbie or no Barbie.

But Lamm, the artist, says ‘average is beautiful.’

Except it isn’t. Beautiful is beautiful, and average is average. Expecting us to be blind to beauty (which is obviously wildly subjective), resistant to cultural ideals, and completely removed from an otherwise extremely superficial society is, at best, naive.

After all, one can hardly help but notice that Lamm’s “average” girl retains Barbie’s iconic platinum blonde hair, fair tones and “beachy” bikini.

Do culture pressures have an effect on women, particularly young ones? Of course. But apparently not enough of one. We have more obesity than ever before, and the numbers are only getting higher.

So we shouldn’t be blaming our little plastic best friend.

Barbie is a product of our standards of beauty, not the cause of them. Beauty ideals are complicated cultural constructs — Mattel didn’t stylize Barbie out of the thin blue air. Thin, fair, delicate and feminine were all, like it or not, considered ideal long before Barbie.

Ultimately, “average” is no answer (either emotionally or analytically) to the Barbie quandary. Average is still a social construct. And it’s perfectly OK to be ambivalent about such things. I mean, on one hand who wouldn’t hate this Barbie chick? She’s that one friend (male or female) we’ve all known who can clear through a tray of tarts, exercise sporadically at best and remain slim ‚ while we struggle away with our little body image insecurities.


But we love that friend, too, in part because there’s nothing average about her or any of the rest of us.


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