How Barbie Bends Our Body Image

Why plastic is not so fantastic

If you spent any time around the Interweb in the lead up to Valentine’s Day, you couldn’t avoid the viral reality show-style “Should Barbie take Ken Back?” ad campaign. And America said yes — the plastic couple’s epic 50-year romance is back on.

First question: Was it ever really off? Did Barbie have a swinging single girl phase? Because, I missed that. In fact, every little girl I know still uses Barbie and Ken to play wedding (and um, wedding night).

Second question: If Mattel wants to really generate a new Barbie frenzy, why not have Ken fall for a new Barbie, one who actually looks like a real woman?

It’s easy to dismiss Barbie haters: She’s only 11 inches of plastic! How much harm can one little doll really do? But this one little doll did set the stage for our entirely gendered toy culture. Pretty much everything marketed to little girls since Barbie's debut, from Bratz Dolls to Disney Princesses reinforces the same tall/thin/big boobs beauty ideal. One reason I found the Barbie and Ken reunion tour so unnerving is that the billboards and video spots didn’t just mimic the hype generated by a hot reality TV show. Reality TV shows (and so many other media portrayals of romance) have been mimicking Barbie for years, perpetuating the same narrow definition of beauty over and over again, until she’s practically the only kind of woman we ever see.

And you only need consider the heartbreaking story of Sheyla Hershey, a real life Barbie look-alike with the world’s largest breast implants, who attempted suicide after having her implants removed due to an infection, to realize that these Barbie-inspired beauty standards have serious consequences.

So now that Barbie and Ken have ridden off into the sunset (and a 4 percent increase in sales), I want to celebrate a less romantic, but awfully important holiday — National Eating Disorder Awareness Week — but talking about just how unrealistic Barbie Beauty truly is.

Because if Barbie were an actual woman:

· She would be 5’9” tall and weigh just 110 pounds.

· Her Body Mass Index would be 16.24, which fits the weight criteria for anorexia.

· She wouldn’t be able to menstruate.

· She’d have a 39” bust, an 18” waist, and 33” hips.

· She’d wear a size 3 shoe.

· And Barbie would have to walk on all fours due to her proportions.

Not quite the girl of Ken’s -- or America’s -- dreams after all, hmm?

( A special thanks to NEDA for supplying us with these fun facts.)

For more on why toys like Barbie have real impact, check out Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture by Peggy Orenstein, who also put together a great list of alternative toys, books and videos that promote more realistic ideas about body image and beauty.

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