Barbie Gets A Body Positive(ish) Makeover

by Michelle Seekamp

Barbie has been at the center of a body image and gender debate since she first strolled onto the toy scene in her heels in 1959. Originally marketed, as Barbie biographer MG Lord once said, “to teach women what—for better or worse—is expected of them in society,” she has often missed the mark when it comes to female empowerment and over the years has gathered as many fans as she has staunch detractors.

Ironically, Barbie has been judged on her physical appearance for decades. Too thin, too busty, too leggy, too much makeup, too, well... perfect—this was her cross to bear. But despite the backlash against her physique, Barbie remained a top seller for Mattel for years with nary a change to her silhouette.  

Earlier last week all that changed—in what equates to a tectonic shift in the toy world. Barbie was no longer singularly flawless (gasp). On Thursday (Jan 29), Mattel launched a new line of dolls in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors—all named “Barbie” BTW—to a fanfare of applause and some, well, apprehension.

"It's important for #Barbie to look like the real people in the world."

Expanding The Barbie (Waist)line To Keep Up

The move was a calculated one by the manufacturer, an attempt to stay relevant and boost lagging sales in an increasingly competitive toy market that now includes Disney Princesses—Elsa from Frozen has been a bestseller for nearly two years, long after the initial popularity of the film wore off) and the Bratz dolls, which have captured the fascination and toy spend of older pre-teens.

These dolls come with a non-traditional fashion sense as well as more compelling backstories: like in the case of princess Elsa who’s all about sisterhood and not needing a man to rescue her (although by the end of Frozen she is in fact in the arms of a prince). Barbie, on the other hand, has remained primarily an image, an empty shell for girls to fill with their own stories and use as a conduit to explore their own perspectives on a variety of things.

But was her physical form conducive to allowing girls to express the full gamut of their inner lives? While recent ad campaigns by Mattel would have us believe otherwise, Barbie’s appearance predisposed her to a certain kind of beauty-first storytelling and play.

Years in the making, the body positive makeover for Barbie is meant to offer a more inclusive representation of the world in which today’s kids actually live. Let’s be honest, though—this is the world kids have always lived in, one in which people come in all manner of shapes, sizes and colors, and it’s taken the manufacturer an awful long time to acknowledge this. Too little, too late? Perhaps.

Not Love At First Sight For Everyone

It was not love at first sight for everyone, as the Internet took to social media to voice their opinions, both positive and negative. Some thought the dolls didn’t go far enough in embracing a wide range of body types and that by using the term “curvy” they fed into the body-labeling woes that they sought to rectify—mainly that if you were plus sized, you better be a sexy “perfect” hourglass shape. Others thought the new “inclusive” skin shades only achieved to exclude a wide range of ethnicities and complexions.

Admittedly, even the kids whom the dolls are targeted toward have expressed apprehension at knowing quite how to take in Barbie’s new image. In the cover story of Time on Thursday, in which journalist Eliana Dockterman was granted access to top-secret research and development facilities that Mattel maintains in Los Angeles, the reaction of girls who were asked to describe what Barbie looked like ranged from unsure to downright embarrassed. Many whom Dockterman observed in focus groups weren’t even comfortable saying the word “fat” when asked to describe the new “curvy” Barbie.

What does that say about the prevalence of a single body type held up as and propagated by all manner of media as the one true ideal? The fact that girls aged as young as 5 and 6 are already embarrassed to say the word “F-A-T”, even though chances are high that someone in their pool of caregivers, family members, teachers and acquaintances are likely to resemble the new Barbies much more than the original (who BTW, wouldn’t be able to stand, breathe, or support her own internal organs, were she an actual person), is a commentary in and of itself on the state of body image and self-acceptance.

Unsteady Steps Worth Taking

We think it’s a great thing that the toys our sons and daughters are interacting with on a daily basis resemble the people in their actual lives. And however unsteady these first steps may be, more toy makers and media outlets should be taking them in order to expand the images and messages they portray to children.

The ‘challenges’ that Mattel is nervously navigating around the new launch, including clothes that won’t fit all Barbie types, are actually opportunities for girls to start forming health attitudes around body challenges that they are likely to face in the real world. The pants won’t always zip, the shoes may be too hard to walk in, and one dress certainly does not fit all. What better way to help girls deal with situations that they will undoubtedly encounter one day than letting them act them out with a doll who actually looks like them?

The new Barbies are currently only being sold online, but presumably will be available on store shelves eventually. The conversations they have already sparked are important and the initial awkwardness they might elicit from their young play companions will hopefully give way to opportunities to navigate what it means to be a woman in a woman-shaped body.

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