Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Barbies and Disney and Vogue! Oh my!

Photo credit: Robert Sabitzer

Last week, Vice President of design for Barbie, Kim Culmone, was interviewed by Fast Company about why Mattel retains Barbie’s impossible hourglass figure despite decades of criticism. It has been frequently argued that Barbie’s dimensions set an extreme body standard which little girls can never achieve, thus undermining their self-esteem and making them susceptible to eating disorders. Culmone responds to criticism by arguing that Barbie’s body was never intended to be realistic and was designed in such a way primarily to be easily dressed and undressed. Her design is apparently purely functional.

The interview isn’t particularly sensational: Culmone’s answers seem reasonable enough and Fast Company is hardly the first website to voice criticisms of Barbie’s figure. And yet the interview, and the articles it has spawned, has nevertheless left me contemplating whether or not my most beloved childhood toy has had a lasting psychological impact.   

I loved Barbies as a child. Being a thoroughly spoiled youngest child, I had nearly a hundred dolls and a bewildering array of accessories. I had the Dream House, several modes of transportation and, of course, an incredible collection of clothing. I would spend hours and hours acting out outrageous stories with my plastic, compliant minions.

So am I crippled with self-esteem issues? Well I’m a 20-something woman living in a society which places an excessive amount of importance on the physical characteristics of woman, so of course. But I don’t blame Barbie for this unfortunate turn of events. As a child I never once looked at Barbie and wanted to look like her because, you know, she’s a hunk of plastic. Barbie may be an unrealistic and impossibly proportioned representation of the female form but that never bothered me as a child because she’s a doll. I never expected realism from my toys; a child’s toy chest would be a miserable place if all toys had to conform to reality.

In fact Barbie’s figure may have been one of the reasons I loved her so much. More than anything else, what every little girl wants to be is a grown-up. I always preferred Barbies over all other dolls because, to me, she seemed the most womanly. Her ample breasts and hips were clear indicators that she was an adult and not a child. She was a grown, adult woman, with complicated relationships, a demanding profession (maybe a spy, maybe the president, maybe a ballet dancer, maybe all at once) and an enviable wardrobe. The stories I wanted to play out required adult characters and Barbie fit that role perfectly.

The criticisms made against Barbie’s figure are the same as those made frequently against the Disney heroines and their impossible waistlines. Ariel from The Little Mermaid seems to get picked on the most in this regard, perhaps because she was the first of the Disney renaissance princesses or because she spends a considerable amount of the film showing off her impossible figure in only a bikini top. But, again, I never once as a child thought that Ariel was a realistic portrayal of a woman because of course she’s not; she’s a mermaid. The figures of the Disney heroines are impossible – the same is true of talking crockery, flying horses, pumpkin carriages, and hyenas capable of learning meticulously choreographed dance routines.

Womanhood as depicted by Barbie and Disney has not left my self-esteem in tatters because what they’re depicting is self-consciously a fantasy – everyone is aware that toys and animated musicals are not real. But the women on the cover of Vogue, they are flesh and blood; they are ‘real’. Of course I know on an intellectual level that they have been airbrushed to the point of impossibility but my immediate emotional reaction to those glossy images is that the cover model looks fantastic and I probably didn’t need that 5th Krispy Kreme. The same is true of the models gliding down the runway in their impeccably tailored couture. Or even the street-style blogs and their constantly updated stream of super skinny (and overwhelmingly white, but that’s a point for another blog) women seemingly plucked from the streets in their day-to-day attire. If these living, breathing women can look so effortlessly fantastic just walking down the street, maybe I should put in a bit more effort before popping to the corner shop. Street-style blogs, the runway and Vogue are of course just as much a fantasy as Disney and Barbie but they masquerade as real and attainable in a way that I just don’t think Disney and Barbie does.

Of course it’s possible that Disney and Barbie have had an impact on my self-esteem and I’m just in denial. Research has been done which shows that Barbie does indeed have an impact on body satisfaction among 5-8 year olds (though I’m not entirely convinced by the rigorousness of the methodology). If Mattel decided to completely revamp Barbie to make her more realistically proportioned, then fair play to them. But it would be naïve to think that such a move would signal a revolution in portrayals of the female form, ushering in a new age of body acceptance. There are far too many other sources of negative body images, ones far more powerful than Mattel’s iconic doll.

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