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The Problem with Barbie and Body Image

Note: this post has a few minor spoilers about the Barbie movie.


I finally watched the Barbie movie a couple of weeks ago, and maybe it was all the hype, but it didn’t strike me as powerfully as it clearly did some other people. (It probably didn’t help that I never liked Barbie dolls, only the Barbie horses.) Parts of the movie were a lot of fun, with my favorite being Weird Barbie, but it also wasn’t quite what I expected.


It took me a little while to figure out what bothered me about the movie, and then it hit me. The movie never addressed the problems of Barbie and body image.


Sure, the movie included a couple of glimpses of plus-sized Barbies, but they had no actual role in the movie. (Admittedly, none of the Kens even got that much, being all very lean and muscular.) And one of the reasons Barbie went to the Real World in the first place is that she couldn’t stand the thought of cellulite.


Plus, Barbieland was so female-focused, with a woman president, all women on the Supreme Court, and women doing all manner of jobs, that it would have been great not to have almost all those women match the thin ideal presented by the media, or at least to acknowledge how problematic that image is. But I guess that was too much to hope for.


Barbie’s proportions are alarming

Although I never played with Barbie dolls when I was little, I was familiar with what they looked like since some of my friends had them. But I didn’t realize just how out of proportion Barbie was or how much her image negatively impacted girls.

About ten years ago, a close assessment of Barbie’s proportions came out with some disturbing statistics about how she would translate into an actual person. Some of those facts include:

  • Her neck would be too skinny to support her head

  • Her tiny waist would only be big enough for half a liver and only part of her intestines

  • She’d wear a size 3 shoe (!), so between that and her skinny ankles, she likely wouldn’t be able to walk and would have to crawl around

  • She would be 5’9” and weigh 110 pounds, putting her firmly in the underweight category


Margot Robbie, who played Barbie in the movie, doesn’t match these proportions, but the doll itself is still out there, and studies have shown that her image negatively impacts young girls, making them less satisfied with their bodies.


Mattel did release new body types in 2016, including a “curvy” one. Unfortunately, even very young kids are subject to weight bias, and most girls don’t want to play with curvy Barbie. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising.


As one article put it: “But if Barbie is a chance to act out only decorative aspects of the feminine, should we be surprised that the only mode through which young girls are willing to play these out is via an unrealistic model?”


Barbie movie and body image

Which brings me back to the movie. If Barbie as a brand has all this baggage around body image, why didn’t they address it?


The only direct mention was in the speech made by the character Gloria. Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you may well have heard this speech or at least heard about it.


And it’s a good speech, starting with the line: “It is literally impossible to be a woman.” But I’m not sure I agree with this part: “You have to be thin, but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin. You have to say you want to be healthy, but also you have to be thin.”


Maybe I don’t get out enough these days, but last I knew, women did talk about wanting to be thin and lose weight, and I don’t recall “too thin” being a problem for most people. I agree there’s tension around health and being thin, and how our society has equated the two, but I don’t think that stops people from saying they want to be thin. Diet programs wouldn’t still be so popular if that were the case.


The other thing is that there’s a sort of irony to America Ferrara, who plays Gloria, saying those words. The whole speech is about the impossible standards women are expected to meet – and Ferrara seems to have aligned with those expectations.


Even though she laments the time she “wasted on diets” and has encouraged young women not to get fixated on their size, Ferrara has done a lot to lose 30 pounds over the years. In 2003, she starred in Real Women Have Curves, and I thought she looked great. These days she looks far different and less curvy, almost unrecognizable from twenty years ago.


So – it certainly seems like the Barbie movie could have done a much better job of addressing body image issues, and I’m not the only one who noticed. Virgie Tovar wrote a great piece on it in Forbes, and here’s another good article by Marcella Raimondo.


The Barbie movie – it’s complicated

I can understand why so many women loved the Barbie movie, especially ones who liked Barbie dolls. It’s wildly different from other movies, it has a great cast, it talks about some important issues, and it has some wonderful moments.


But because it doesn’t address the big problem with Barbie dolls, I’m worried the movie will boost sales of the doll again, which will only help perpetuate body image issues. I might be wrong, but if by any chance they make a sequel, I hope it tackles this issue head-on and helps girls feel better about their bodies.


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