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Barbies and Body Image

Originally published Wednesday, 21 August 2013.

In college, I majored in media arts and design. Because of my concentration in media, I have had the opportunity to participate in many conversations about the media and its effects on our culture. One of the most frequent and often troubling conversations involved the effects of media on our body image, particularly for women.

We often talked of how Marilyn Monroe’s curvaceous, iconic figure is now considered “plus size” in the today’s modeling industry. We also talked about the horrible proportions of Barbie- who, if she was real, would not be able to stand up straight due to her disproportional chest and waist size. There wasn’t too much sticking up for Barbie in our academic conversations about body image and consumerism.

So I was surprised (but grateful) for Sarah Bessey’s different take on Barbie. Sarah’s oldest daughter has reached the age where she loves playing with dolls, including Barbies. But Sarah, critical of the “impossible standards of beauty” that Barbie has come to stand for, was at first unsure of whether or not to tell her little one play with them. However, after looking around for other options, she began to see Barbie differently.

Today’s most popular dolls are the Monster High dolls and Bratz dolls. They are, in Sarah’s words, “zombies.”

The clothes are appalling, their “careers” are as fashionistas and flirts, and let’s talk about the lollipop heads with gigantic eyes and lips and barely-there bodies.

After seeing these grotesque dolls flanking store shelves, Sarah began reconsidering Barbie, especially after seeing how her daughter played with them. I’m glad, too, because she shared a perspective on Barbie I hadn’t considered.

Her favourite Barbie is her Mars Explorer Barbie because she wants to be an astronaut. At this moment, she’s using her old receiving blankets to create a Mars replica. She’s converted her little Barbie car to a space ship, the Veterinarian Barbie is the controller back at the launch pad. Her Strawberry Shortcake dolls set up a bakery on Mars, the Legos are in use, the telescope is out, too. She plans on teaching school to her classroom of Barbies later. She’s happy, she’s creative, she’s dreaming, she’s having fun.

What more could a mother want for her daughter?

Sarah’s post reminded me of the series Rachel Marie Stone did on Evolving Skinny Toys. If you haven’t seen this, go check it out- particularly if you’re a parent. Rachel looks at some of the most popular toys for children- Candy Land, My Little Ponies, GI Joes, etc., and examines how over time these toys have evolved into skinner, sexier versions of their original form.

To be honest, I’m not sure I can look back and say if my Barbies or any of the toys I played with as a little girl challenged my view of myself or somehow warped my perception of beauty. Perhaps that’s the point- the way our beliefs and perceptions are created are often so subtle we don’t even realize it. Which is of course why marketing and advertising are so successful, and why it’s important we keep having conversations about how media shapes our beliefs.

What do you think? Have certain toys or trends shaped the way you thought of yourself? Have you found any good replacements for Barbie or Bratz dolls? 

Kelly Givens is the editor of iBelieve.