Happy Birthday, Barbie! Why We Love & Hate Her

Today is Barbie’s “birthday!” The doll is celebrating its fifty-third anniversary of her debut at the World’s Toy Fair in New York city.  Barbie’s goal was to be different from other dolls of the time, who were usually baby dolls or paper dolls. Creator Ruth Handler drew inspiration from the German fashion doll “Bild Lilli,” who had a more womanly body and could be played with better than a paper doll. Although Barbie started off as a “teen-age fashion model,” she eventually became a career woman, spending time as an astronaut, teacher, rock star, doctor, paratrooper, flight attendant, lifeguard, computer engineer, Canadian mountie and McDonald’s cashier. Barbie is not just a fashion doll, but “aspiration figure,” although it can be argued that some of Barbie’s careers could send the wrong message–that girls shouldn’t aspire to have just a career, but aspire to some of the more material things in life–the “Barbie and the Rockers” line from 1986 was designed to directly compete with Hasbro’s insanely popular “Jem and the Holograms” franchise. (Fun fact: the Jem cartoon was solely created to help sell the dolls.) In 1992, “Teen Talk Barbie” was released, with the doll sprouting such phrases as “math class is tough,” “do you have a crush on anybody? (keep in mind, the doll was marketed at children, not teenagers,)” and “party dresses are fun!” While are party dresses are fun, many felt that the doll shouldn’t have been sprouting negative stereotypes (“math class is tough!”) the doll should have been more encouraging. The controversy was so big, it was even spoofed in The Simpsons fifth season episode “Lisa Vs. Malibu Stacy.”


The biggest controversy regarding Barbie, however, is with her unrealistic body measurements. A standard Barbie doll is 11.5 inches tall, giving a height of 5 feet 9 inches at 1/6 scale. Barbie’s vital statistics have been estimated at 36 inches (chest), 18 inches (waist) and 33 inches (hips). At 5’9″ tall and weighing 110 lbs, Barbie would have a BMI of 16.24 and fit the weight criteria for anorexia. According to research by the University Central Hospital in Helsinki, Finland, she would lack the 17 to 22 percent body fat required for a woman to menstruate. She would also have to walk on all fours due to her proportions. At first, Mattel claimed that Barbie’s waist was so tiny due to the bulk of snaps and zippers on the fashions, but in 1997, they widened her waist to accommodate modern fashions, although some argue that Mattel has gone against that with their line of collectable Silkstone dolls, created to look like the Barbies of the early sixties. Barbie has also had it’s blunders in regard to race; with many pointing out that the ethnic Barbies are nothing more than white dolls painted a different color and given a different hair texture, and thus, creating an even more unrealistic image for little girls to try and live up to.
Now, I personally love Barbie for the kitsch value. When I was little, I got my sister’s dolls from the eighties–big hair, crazy blue eye shadow, giant ballgowns, the works. I’m now a collector of sixties-era Barbie stuff. But that being said, I’m also aware of how the “teen-age” fashion model could have a negative effect on one’s body image and other aspirations. I’m not going to lie, I secretly hoped that I would grow up to have Barbie’s insane figure. But at the same time, I also find Barbie to be a great way to express imagination. My friends and I had Barbie doing many things outside of her assigned careers–we once staged our own sequel to Grease, where Danny Zuko came back from Vietnam without his left arm, we played fashion show, we played high school, murder mystery. Could we have done it without Barbie? Absolutely. But somehow, it was just a little more glamorous using Barbie rather than Power Ranger action figures.

So, LivLunatics, what do you think? Were (are) you pro or anti Barbie? Did she have an impact on your body image?

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