The World of Barbie – Literally

It’s been a while since I thought about Barbie dolls, but today’s trivia question on our local radio station got my attention. It turns out that 2 Barbie dolls are sold every second, worldwide. That’s 1.5 million Barbies each week. Fully half of all dolls sold on earth are Barbies.

 My own Barbie would now be considered a “vintage” model, with her black and white striped maillot and bouffant hairdo. I spent hours zipping Barbie into her tiny outfits and arranging the furniture in her cardboard dream house. Back then, Barbie’s plastic legs didn’t bend at the knees and she had only two players in her supporting cast: BFF Midge and best beau Ken.

But Barbie was the star, and it was Barbie who would teach my generation exactly what it meant to be the kind of girl who turned heads and lived life at center stage. Those girls were tall. Lean. They had long necks and flat bellies. Their breasts tapered into narrow waists and trim hips. They had flawless skin and manicured nails. They knew how to walk in stilettos, drove sports cars, and, yes, lived in a dream house.

We know now that if Barbie were an actual person, she would be in real trouble. Conservative estimates put her at 5’9, and 110 pounds; others claim she would actually be close to seven feet tall and weigh in at 125. Either way, her BMI falls into the anorexic range; her body fat percentage would be so low she would not menstruate. Estimates of her measurements vary a bit, but fall into the general range of 38 – 18 – 33. Some speculate that with Barbie’s proportions, she wouldn’t be able to stand up, or that her neck would be unable to support the weight of her head. I remember something about this from high school physics, when we learned about strength-to-weight ratios. It’s the same reason those gigantic spiders from old horror movies couldn’t possibly walk.

I imagine my vintage Barbie trying to crawl from room to room in the dream house, starting out in an awkward downward dog pose. “Damn knees!” she would mutter as her unbending legs and arms inched forward with a gait more suited to an aardvark than a beauty queen. Give it a try. It’s almost impossible to make any forward progress from that position.

Her delicate feet – actually the same size as her hands – were permanently molded to the shape of her signature Barbie high heels. Each outfit came with at least one pair – sometimes two. I was lucky enough to have Barbie’s ballerina outfit, and her satin toe shoes slid into perfect position for pirouettes. But with those feet, Barbie wouldn’t have done well on the tennis court, and if she took a morning jog her legs would ache with the pressure of running on tiptoe. No trainer would allow Barbie to do her squats and lunges until her feet were flat on the floor. But Barbie couldn’t do squats and lunges anyway, could she?

Who knows what Barbie did to maintain that figure. Maybe she was like my neighbor Debbie from freshman year of college. Debbie had a definite Barbie look: long blonde hair, lean build, chiseled features. Debbie was generous too. If you had a guest at dinner time, she would gladly lend you her meal ticket for the cafeteria. She had to study, she always said. And I assumed it was the pressure of being pre-med that made her throw up so often.

When the time came, I gave my own daughter an updated Barbie and Santa brought the new generation of dream house as well as a pink Corvette. My rule – established only partly in jest – was that Barbie couldn’t have nicer underwear than mine. It’s somewhat disconcerting to realize that as an adult, I was comparing my real life working mom wardrobe with that of a Barbie doll. And probably at some absurd level, comparing my post-childbirth body with hers too.

For me, for my daughter, and now for her daughters, Barbie inhabits her dream house for only a few years of childhood play.  I never imagined that the statuesque Barbie image would define the way generations of girls look at our bodies, our wardrobes, our homes, our relationships, and our lives.  

You can’t blame Barbie.

There is no Barbie. We all know that.  But Barbie continues to hold court at center stage for 120 girls every minute around the world.

This entry was posted in Body Image, Obsessions, Parents and children, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The World of Barbie – Literally

  1. Jay says:

    I can’t blame Barbie because Barbie isn’t real – but I can blame the societal forces that market and promote Barbie, and I can try to resist them. Eve had at least one Barbie that she received as a gift because I decided that making Barbie forbidden would make Barbie even more enticing, but I didn’t buy them and Eve was never all that interested.

    I don’t blame Barbie. I blame the patriarchy.

  2. Calisson says:

    I allowed my daughter to play with Barbies and I allowed my son to play with He-man–similar to Jay, I didn’t want to make them deliciously forbidden. But they came with “helpful chats” that may or may not have had any enlightening effect. In any case, our daughter was more interested in Barbie’s “stuff” than in Barbie (oh, that car! that garage!), and our son preferred to run around the house with a towel pinned to his back, a flying Superman.

    I blame the patriarchy too, but it isn’t listening.

    I am grateful that neither child grew up to aspire to a Barbie-esque body, or to expect a Barbie-esque body in a female partner.

  3. Laurna says:

    I enjoy reading your weekly stories! (Hope you will be posting a couple “catchup” stories?) Maybe about having four generations together, memories of them yesterday & today, seeing Rochester again …. Keep writing!

  4. Barbie is only one cog in the giant wheel which is media pressure and influence on the physical aspirations and self-esteem of girls and women. However, considering she often comes into our lives when we are young and impressionable, and often with a great deal of hype among our peers, I have no doubt she is an important influence, setting us on our way to unrealistic expectations of what we and our lives will look like. Thank you for this thought-provoking article!

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