Why Barbie is a big deal

Today’s post goes out on a limb a bit. It’s probably going to be controversial and many of you won’t agree with me, but these are some thoughts that have been swirling around in my mind for many months, and that some of you might find beneficial. I know that I have some young readers (hi nieces and nephews!), so if that’s you, ask a parent before you follow the links — not all are what you would call wholesome, but they are necessary to prove some points.

Barbie dolls have become such a common toy in little girls’ toy boxes that hardly anyone these days would question owning a Barbie doll. They’re everywhere, and pictures of them adorn backpacks, lunch boxes, bedding and pretty much anything else a little girl might own. I owned Barbie dolls when I was a kid, I loved them and never thought too hard about it. And then, last year, I followed a link to a blog article titled Naked Sex with Barbies.*

While I’ve always had some ideas about why I don’t want my kids to play with Barbies, that article brewed away in my mind and prompted me to put my reasoning on paper — for myself, but also for when people ask. This has turned into something much bigger than I first thought it would be, and has led me all over the internet, reading lots of different opinions and making me realise that my defence of “Oh, but it’s just a doll!” was weak. There’s a lot more to this topic that we think –at least, much more than I ever thought.

I’ve been thinking hard about the effects Barbie dolls have on the girls playing with them and have come to the conclusion that Barbie is not welcome in our house for 2 main reasons. Here they are. If you disagree with me, I won’t think any less of you. Just please don’t give my girls a Barbie doll for Christmas. :-)

(If you’re interested in a bit of history, wikipedia has pretty good articles on the Bild Lilli Doll (the doll that Ruth Handler, the co-founder of the Mattel toy company who makes Barbie, based the first Barbie doll on), and on the history of Barbie.)

So here are my reasons:

1. Her sexualised body, immodest dress and how girls play with their dolls.

A very young girl might play with her Barbie doll in a very innocent way, but it doesn’t take very long before the reason for Barbie’s voluptous curves start creeping into play, especially when Ken joins the show.

If you really think that kids are going to play with Barbie without exploiting her physical features at some point, you are naive. There is of course the school of thought that argues that sexual play is important for kids to discover their own sexuality. In short, I’m not in this school of thought, but would rather not expand on it right here and now.

Disclaimer: I’m by no means suggesting that when kids play with Barbie dolls they only ever play ‘naked sex with Barbies’. I enjoyed many, many fun hours as a kid building houses for my Barbies, putting clothes on them, etc. But I think you can find other kinds of dolls to do this with who don’t have the exaggerated female anatomy of Barbie.

A pop group of the ’90s, Aqua, put out a song called Barbie Girl when I was about 13 and it’s remarkably close to the truth. Sometimes pop artists capture things really well, even in parody. At the very least, it shows me I’m not the only one who realises that Barbie-play isn’t always innocent! Here’s the chorus and one verse for your, uh, edification:

I’m a barbie girl, in the barbie world
Life in plastic, it’s fantastic!
you can brush my hair, undress me everywhere
Imagination, life is your creation

I’m a blond bimbo girl, in the fantasy world
Dress me up, make it tight, I’m your dolly
You’re my doll, rock’n’roll, feel the glamour in pink,
kiss me here, touch me there, hanky panky…
You can touch, you can play, if you say: “I’m always yours”

Part of the fun with owning dolls is that you can make dolls’ clothes and put them on the dolls. The problem with Barbie’s wardrobe is that a lot of it is immodest and skanky. Yes, there are modest outfits and there certainly are very pretty gowns, but the majority of clothing leaves very little to the imagination. I wouldn’t let my daughters out of the house wearing this, why would I let them play with a doll dressed like it? I guess you could make modest clothes for Barbie, but that won’t change her anatomy.

As an aside, it seems unfortunate that most people like it that way. I’m afraid I forget where I found this quote, but it’s interesting:

“Disney doesn’t have to come out with more conservative Barbies. Consumers buy Barbie dolls like crazy and have never demanded more conservative versions of them. Parents buy what’s available…either Barbies in adult suggestive clothing or Barbies dressed in gowns. Neither of them represent how little girls dress.

Except sometimes it does represent how little girls dress. And then it certainly is not healthy.

She has a boyfriend (and ex-boyfriend)tattoos, she is the ideal woman and also a bimbo, she is the spiritual mother of Britney.

Does all this really encourage little girls to just play innocently with their dolls? Maybe so — unlikely, but possible. Yet nobody can ignore her body, so here’s my second reason.

2. Her unrealistic body and what that does to girls’ viewing of themselves

Barbie’s body proportions are about as natural as the plastic she’s made out of. Let me say first off that I’m not against beauty, but I AM against unrealistic beauty!

We know that long legs look nice, full lips are appealing, bigger eyes and breasts are attractive and a small waist and large (comparatively) hips are feminine. The makers of Barbie exploit this and have made dolls that exaggerate all of these features, plus some, giving young girls the idea that one person can have all these features of beauty.

So it’s not really a surprise that many women who are perfectly beautiful in their own right have self-esteem issues because they think they are fat, or that their legs are too short, or whatever. I am not the only or the first person to write about this — this is usually the reason people give for being anti-Barbie. Barbie gets blamed for eating disorders and for giving girls bad self-esteem. But guess what — even so, Barbie has been accused of having fat ankles (?!).

Barbie’s body proportions are very unrealistic, and whether this is true or not it has been said that a woman with Barbie’s proportions would not be able to menstruate due to a lack of body fat. But Mattel doesn’t put up with too much criticism, as what happened when The Body Shop had an ad to celebrate normal looking women.

Do all girls who play with Barbie dolls want to look like Barbie? Probably not. But I think the number of 10-year old girls who wouldn’t want to be a Doll for a Day would be pretty small.

Now, I’ll admit that I’m not sure how far to take this — will I only ever let my kids play with realistic toys? If a truck doesn’t have realistic dimensions, will I not let my kids play with it? If the baby doll isn’t to exact proportions, are they not allowed to play with it? No, of course not. Mainly because I don’t think there are bigger underlying issues with those kinds of toys.

But this goes further than just little girls playing with Barbie dolls, because those little girls grow up, and become women. Women who are bombarded with The Perfect Body everywhere they turn. The totally unattainable, unrealistic, Perfect Body. Barbie’s body is seen as the perfect body. Why? Because the 5% of the population who is considered beautiful (with a bit of make-up and photoshop for good measure if you’re lacking in any way) looks just like her. Don’t believe me? They are the women you see in ads all the time. Ads that objectify women. Ads that make you look like someone else. Ads that are so incredibly harmful and destructive. (You might want to turn your sound off for that one. Some people might find some of the ads shown in the previous link disturbing, just as a warning.) Feminist Jean Kilbourne has a lot of good things to say (even if she might come at it from a different angle) about women in advertising and the harm it can do. Her book, So Sexy So Soon, has some interesting things to say about the effects of Barbie and Bratz dolls on young girls. Have a look at chapter 2 here.

Everyone who knows me in person know that I have a fair bit of extra padding. :-) I recently lost some weight and left the ‘obese’ group on the BMI behind and have joined the ‘overweight’ group. (Yes, size 14 is considered obese these days.) I won’t go into detail about what kinds of insecurities some extra flab brings to a woman, because I think that most of you are at least to some extent familiar with it. Let’s just say that even though I have an amazing husband who tells me that I’m beautiful every single day, I only believe him on the days I don’t feel fat.

What is it that has messed with our minds so much that we can see the beauty in so many things around us except ourselves, unless we meet that impossible ideal of beauty? It’s the images and shapes we are bombarded with from childhood through to the day we die — first through toys like Barbie (or Bratz, etc.), then through advertising. It almost feels like a conspiracy organised by the giants in the industry: toy manufacturers, advertising groups, the fashion industry and photoshop (to name only a few). Is this really all just about money? Is it about trying to bombard us with their worldview up to the point that it becomes ours? So we will buy their products? Is it that base, that low? Or is something else going on here?

So there you have it. Bye-bye Barbie (et al!). I want my girls just to be girls as long as possible! Is it possible? I pray for it. And like the mom in this blog post, I will fight for it. This is at least a start.

——

* While I don’t agree with the writer’s responses to her daughter, I do think that she is doing a great job of talking with her daughter about sex. Kids should feel comfortable talking to their parents about sex without any feelings of shame, and am especially thankful to my own parents for giving me that when I was growing up.

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