Curvy Barbie Is A Double-Edged Sword

Photo: Courtesy of Mattel.
Today, Mattel announced a new group of Barbies to the brand's Fashionista collection of dolls. In addition to adding more skin, hair, and eye colors, the line will now feature Curvy, Tall, and Petite dolls. Taking a look at these ladies, my first thought was: Wow, a not-thin Barbie! My next thought? Duck and cover. Wide hips or not, this Barbie is still a Barbie. Therefore, she comes with a non-detachable backlash. But this time, I'm going to be on her side. What a world.

The truth is, there is no Barbie without backlash. She's been rankling consumers since she was born in 1959, a bosomy bombshell in a zebra-stripe swimsuit, her eyes cast in a suggestive, sideways gaze. Back then, it was Barbie's large breasts that had parents worried over what kind of message this gal might be sending their daughters. Over the years, concerns moved further south, toward Barbie's waifish little waist. Barbie's been through a lot in her 50-plus years; between her on-and-off romance with Ken; her successful careers in the fields of education and astronautics; and her adventures with Skipper, Francie, and her one Black friend, Christie. But no matter what changes went on in her life and her manufacturing, her body remained the same: really, really thin.

Just like OG Barbie, Curvy Barbie is problematic. In fact, she embodies the biggest, most valid complaints from the body positive community. First of all, she's curvy, a somewhat dated euphemism for all plus-size women, implying that if you're not thin, then you'd better be a voluptuous hourglass.

Second, she doesn't appear to be the size of a plus-size woman, but a plus-size model. (Don't get me wrong, Ashley Graham is the bee's knees, but most little girls won't grow up into bodies like hers.)

Finally, she's niche. She represents one-quarter of one collection of Barbie's vast universe. While plus-size women make up the majority of the American female population, in this world, she's almost an anomaly. She doesn't get to date Ken and or run for president. She just gets to exist — a little.

But I'd argue there's a pretty big but in this equation.
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Photo: Courtesy of Mattel.
Curvy Barbie is a big and necessary first step. By their very nature, first steps are often a little unsteady and are meant to be exploratory. I cannot imagine a scenario in which any Curvy Barbie could satisfy everybody's needs and opinions on this matter, because she is just one body. But I can see how we can learn a lot from her — things we simply couldn't learn if we didn't let her out into the market and see where she goes. Take a look at the internet today and you'll see how much we're already learning because of her and her Tall and Petite sisters.

As of this writing, #Barbie is the number one trend on Twitter. "Barbie diversifies by adding new kinds of rather slender women," tweets New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas.

"SO happy to see all of the new Barbie bodies!" the iconic Gabifresh chimed in.

Added business advisor and TV personality, Carol Roth: "Having a 'curvy Barbie' isn't a win for girls/women. It's a win when the discussion is no longer about our bodies."

All totally valid opinions and hearty food for thought. Curvy Barbie was born 13 hours ago and she's already brought more voices to a vital discussion. I say anything that drives a conversation about feminism and body diversity to the top of the charts is an undeniably good thing.

Then, there's the conversation happening offline, amongst children. That's the one that really matters: Barbie is, after all, a toy. Time's in-depth exposé on the development of these new Barbie bodies underscored the sad fact that while we crow about our great strides with acceptance and diversity, kids still don't want to say the word "fat" out loud.

Observing a room full of kids testing the doll at Mattel, "A shy 7-year-old refuses to say the word 'fat' to describe the doll, instead spelling it out, 'F, a, t,'" writes Time reporter Eliana Dockterman. "'I don't want to hurt her feelings,' she says a little desperately."

A scene like that reveals a lot, both about what kids perceive as fat and how they feel about fatness. I wouldn't personally categorize Curvy Barbie as fat, but she is different. And we cannot underestimate the impact of showing kids something different, even if it's just a little bit different or not the kind of different we would have preferred. Diversity is all about exposure to difference and the understanding that different is normal and, above all, equal.

The more time Curvy Barbie, with her slightly thicker arms and small, but rounded, belly, stands on shelves alongside her skinnier sisters, the more mundane she becomes. Today, she's groundbreaking, but when she becomes a normal toy, what ground might be broken next? After all, plus-size bodies are in the spotlight now, but what of all the other bodies that don't look like Barbie? There is so much difference among us and so many words we're scared to say out loud. If Curvy Barbie gets us saying some of them, who cares how big her thighs are? The point is, we're talking.
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