Through various art projects over the years, there has been quite a lot of debate on the Internet about Barbie's influence on young girls and just how serious her contributions are to modern problems of self-esteem and body image. Some claim that it's harmless and "just a doll," others believe that the insistent and iconic presence of a quite literally unattainable figure plants a seed of self-loathing in kids' heads from day one. With this problem in mind, Mark Wilson went to the Mattel headquarters on behalf of Fast Company to gain some insight on the matter, asking dark questions in a world shrouded with Barbie's signature pink.
"Barbie’s designers were anything but the Stepfordian dictatorship seeking to deliberately crush a young girl’s body image as critics may assume," Wilson writes. Among these non-scary, perfecly pleasant people he met was Kim Culmone, the vice president of design for Barbie. Culmone explains that the doll's "body was never designed to be realistic. She was designed for girls to easily dress and undress. And she’s had many bodies over the years, ones that are poseable, ones that are cut for princess cuts, ones that are more realistic."
Most of the changes made to various iterations of Barbie's body are designed to help the particular outfits she is sold with fit better. They change her figure to accommodate the clothes. Is it just us, or does that sound a whole lot like the old argument that runway models have to be super thin, because they essentially function as a hanger to showcase garments as they exist in their purest form, without the inconveniences posed by pudge?
The evolution of Barbie is, as with any legendary brand, a constant ebb and flow between past influence, present concerns, and future innovations. That means, for Culmone, maintaining some measure of continuity between the Barbie bodies of her childhood and the ones sold today. When asked if she would ever consider changing Barbie's shape, she says it "would depend on the objective. So to me, there isn't an objective to change the proportion of Barbie currently." She seems to understand, though, that the pressure here is coming from parents and generally concerned citizens who worry for the future mental health of children. On that note: "To little girls, they are putting themselves in that doll anyway. You have to remember that girls’ perceptions are so different than grown-ups’ perceptions about what real is and what real isn’t, and what the influences are."
Overall, Culmone insists that playtime is playtime, and that we shouldn't project the same body image "baggage" onto children that we carry as adults. Of course, the question remains: Where did that baggage come from in the first place? Is it possible that Barbie, along with many, many other representations of female beauty like her, played some small part in it? Mattel seems to think not. We, for our part, aren't ready to rule anything out entirely.
It's easy to say that Barbie isn't supposed to be realistic, but compared to other humanoid characters sold in toy stores, she is certainly leaning heavily toward realism. She has detailed fingers and toes, and her eyes are painted with realistic irises and pupils. Whatever the intention, the result of the care and artistry at work here is a doll whose image is much more easily compared to a real human form than, say, an amorphous, plush rendering of Dora the Explorer.
At least one study — cited by Wilson in the Fast Company piece — has indicated that there is some connection and that Barbie dolls may "contribute to an increased risk of disordered eating." While Culmone seems inclined to give children the credit to understand these subtle differences between real life and playtime, there's also an argument to be made that children are actually less adept at recognizing what is intended to be an actual example and what is pure fiction with liberties taken. We expect children to believe Santa Claus is real for some portion of their lives, why shouldn't we assume they'll do the same with Barbie's body type?