Monday, April 6, 2015

The real problems caused by Barbie's unrealistic proportions

As a little girl, I played with Barbie dolls. If I had a play date with friends, we would pick out our Barbie doll and say something like, “I’ll be this one, you be that one.” I even dressed up as Barbie one year for Halloween. What I didn't realize were the detrimental psychological effects that Barbie dolls can have on young girls.

The Lammily doll was recently created to fight the beauty standards that Barbie reinforces. Nickolay Lamm, the artist behind the doll, developed a doll in the likeness of the average 19-year-old girl in the United States. Lamm used averages from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to create the proportions. The doll also comes with stickers of cellulite, stretch marks, and acne. In the future, Lamm intends to expand his line of dolls to “embrace diversity,” from “race to body type.”

However, the idea of the Lammily doll hasn't received a wholly warm welcome. In a Buzzfeed article discussing the release of the doll and the artist's intentions when creating the doll, some commentators shared their skepticism and hostility toward the idea as they defended the Barbie doll:
Cheryl: “Of course, Barbie doesn't look like most real women. She's a plastic doll.” 
Angela: “Whatever man, I love Barbie just the way she is. Had tons of them as a kid. I've never had any body image issues, either. I don't know any girl or woman who has body image issues because of fucking Barbie.”
What Cheryl and Angela might not understand is that Barbie's unrealistic proportions can cause psychological problems for young girls. If Barbie were a real person, she wouldn't be able to stand upright, and her neck would not be able to support the weight of her head. There are already so many pressures and standards placed on girls and women, why start reinforcing such standards at a young age?

When questioned about Barbie’s unrealistic proportions, Kim Culmone, the Vice President of Design at Mattel, said that Barbie’s body was not designed to be realistic, and “her body has to be able to accommodate how the clothes will fit her.” The Mattel executive went on to say that girls don't compare their bodies to Barbie dolls, because it is just “play.”

Research doesn't support Culmone’s statement. A University of Sussex study investigated how playing with a Barbie doll affected girls between the ages of 5 and 8. The study found that exposure to images of a Barbie doll lowered young girls’ body self-esteem and made them desire a thinner body. Other dolls without the Barbie ultra-thin frame did not have the same effect.

This study suggests that girls see dolls as aspirational role models, and internalize appearance related standards, which in turn play a central role in self-esteem and self-evaluation. The internalization of these ideas can cause depression, dieting and even eating disorders. The study called for new dolls that reinforce healthy body images to enter the market.

Replacing Barbie with the Lammily doll, or other dolls with realistic body proportions is a welcome change in response to the serious psychological issues girls may develop from the Barbie doll. Is creating realistic dolls enough though? Some argue it isn't. Instead, some argue, we should be giving our children gender neutral toys, to not reinforce the sexism rampant in toy industry, and in the larger society. Read this article for more on the reasons that gender-based marketing has become so prevalent, and see this post for more on the advantages of gender neutral toys. Also see Cyborgs and Barbie Dolls: Feminism, Popular Culture and the Posthuman Body by Kim Toffoletti for feminist interpretations of the Barbie doll.

1 comment:

Jessica S. said...

Great topic, Sara. Somehow, dolls have started some heated convos in my classes before. I think it would be great to have a diverse array of dolls, and allow children to play with both female and male dolls. One of my male friends told me he wanted a Barbie doll, and his parents refused to let him have one. Reinforcing gender segregation at that age is problematic. If we create a toy selection that mirrors the real world, perhaps kids would develop healthier attitudes about bodies and boy/girl friendships. Maybe Barbie's proportions wouldn't seem special then if she were one body type among many others. I personally would not buy only gender-neutral toys, but that is because I would want my kids to get comfortable with all gender presentations. If others want gender-neutral instead, that's okay too.

Also, there's the above Bratz dolls make-under. Another take on it:

I forgot where the race discussion version of this is, but...apparently, some note that a white standard of beauty replaces some of the dolls' "ethnic" coloring, eye shape, and larger lips. I just don't think it's great to equate certain features and vibrant makeup with looking "porny." Too much sexualization is happening with all things female. And there seem to be more negative connotations with non-white features and adornment. I just wanted to put that in here because women with larger lips and breasts get labelled "slutty" and I think that's wrong. We need to teach kids (and adults too, by some of the comments on Jezebel) that the media's sexual commentary and associations are bs.