Sloughing off the Barbie Effect
Jashodhara Chakraborti reflects on how recent cosmetic makeovers do little to undo the insidious effects of the Barbie beauty ideal
If you were born female, grew up in the 1970s and had a relative abroad, chances are you were gifted a Barbie doll at some point. I remember unwrapping mine gingerly, with a sense of awe—getting a Barbie was a very special present in those days. What emerged was a blonde doll in aqua high-cut briefs, a bikini top with a plunging neckline and white stilettoes. If you removed her clothes, she had suntan marks. I lived in small-town Rajasthan, eleven, stick-thin and tanned to a crisp from playing in the sun. Looking at the tan lines, I thought the toy makers (Mattel, a brand name I only learnt later) had made a mistake in their paint job.
As I went to sleep that night, her image remained etched in my mind. This was the first time I had seen such a tiny waist and such voluptuous breasts on a doll; her high-cut briefs reminded me of dancers in music videos (it was the early eighties), except they wore leotards as well. Her thighs did not meet like mine did. It was perhaps my first brush with something that was so … sexual. I had seen blonde dolls before, they didn’t faze me, but this one’s height and proportions made me stare at myself in the mirror more than once. I looked nothing like her in my navy swimsuit, let alone a bikini. I looked, well, rectangular and funny. While I was staring and comparing, Swimsuit Barbie (as I called her) toppled over more than once because of her heavy breasts and tiny feet. This should have given me a clue about the impossibility of that figure, but I didn’t make the connection at the time.
Because Barbie is, in fact, anatomically impossible, ridiculously and dangerously so. Until as late as 2016, when she had her biggest revamp, she was 5 feet 9, 110 pounds, with size 3 feet, a neck thrice as long as any mere mortal might possess, and wrists so thin she wouldn’t have been able to lift a thing. Real-life Barbie would not be able to menstruate as she had less than 17 per cent body fat (see Hannah Jarman in The Journal of Aesthetic Nursing, 2016) or even walk—she would need to crawl. Unbelievable as it might seem now, in the sixties, Barbie dolls came with an instruction booklet telling little girls: ‘How to Lose Weight—Don’t Eat!’
Many years later, during a particularly difficult and isolating time in my life, when I was teaching in London, I went off food as a stress response, withering away to 110 pounds on my 5 feet 1 inch frame. I was unable to eat even the bare minimum I needed to sustain myself. My thighs stopped meeting in the middle; I fainted every other night. During that particularly miserable time of my life rife with self-loathing, I became the thing little girls were ‘instructed’ to dream about—I achieved size zero. It was only when a teenager compared me to Barbie (it was meant as a compliment) that the alarm bells rang. I visited the doctor who informed me that I was dangerously close to stopping my menstrual cycle and needed intervention. I thought about Swimsuit Barbie on my way back from the NHS, exactly the same weight as me but eight inches taller, and wondered if she would even be alive if she were a person.
In 2016, Mattel did change her body shape, but that is how long it took them to embrace healthy body weight as an ideal. For over sixty years (yes, that long), children were fed on a mythical body shape that coincided with an alarming rise in eating disorders and body issues. The 2016 curvy Barbie with body proportions that matched the American average was like a much-needed exhalation after unlacing a too-tight corset.
Rightly the object of much criticism—presenting impossible body types, overwhelmingly pushing the blonde ideal of beauty, and unnecessarily sexualised for a doll meant for children—Barbie has, to be fair, also evolved like no other doll has. An African-American Barbie has been around since the Civil Rights Movement and, in a bid to appeal to global geographies, Barbie embraced and embodied other cultures and races, even though the frightful body proportions remained. Since the 2016 revamp, Barbie has vitiligo, Down Syndrome, comes in a wheelchair, in more racial types, skin colours and features than any other doll in the world. It would be a more meaningful change if we went past the labels linking women to descriptors altogether, but a toy company does need to describe its products, so I can only hope for more sensitive labels for the dolls. Perhaps someday.
Fortunately for the child that I was, she looked so very alien I might as well have aspired to look like my neighbour’s cat. A lost cause. But I did think to myself—so this is what beautiful is. I sighed at my obvious unattractiveness and the pointlessness of trying to achieve the unachievable, put a brave face on the difficult emotion by sticking my tongue out at my reflection and went out to do more important things, like roam on my cycle with my friends.
When I smuggled her to school a week after I got her, Barbie affected my fairer, taller, prettier friends far more than she had affected me. They swooned over her long blonde hair and immediately wanted to straighten and lighten theirs; they were fair themselves but wanted to be even fairer—they wanted to be white. What all of us wanted was that elusive Barbie waist. There was an explosion of both homemade recipes for facials and unhappiness with the way we looked. Ours was a co-ed school, we were used to boys. For the first time, there was an uncomfortable awareness of male attention in a group where our games were (or had been until then) rough and tumble and entirely innocent. The boys had goggled so hard at my Barbie, I felt uncomfortable and packed her away.
In any case, I was not the sort of girl child who played diligently with dolls. Cruel and neglectful mothering on my part meant my dolls had lost most of their hair, been made up with green felt pens, and, sad to say, even had an eye gouged out. My parents realised I was better off with pets, which is how I found myself the owner of a rabbit named Pixie.
Pixie was possessive, and did not like my sudden, albeit brief infatuation with Barbie. About two weeks after I had received my Barbie, I returned from school to find one of her soft plastic nail polish-adorned feet chewed off, along with its stiletto, and Pixie pointedly but defiantly avoiding eye contact while sitting with his nose against the bedroom wall. Before I realised how lame Barbie was, my wise pet told me so.
Eventually, we gave Barbie away to Vicky, my friend across the boundary wall who loved playing with dolls. A month later, I went on a play date to his house and found Swimsuit Barbie resplendent in a parrot-green satin salwar kameez and a glitzy mini dupatta, her blonde hair braided with a tiny tassel parandi, her rabbit-amputated foot carefully covered with her extra-long salwar, lounging on a plastic sofa watching a pink plastic telly. Vicky was cooing at her while he made imaginary paranthas on a plastic gas stove. Was it my imagination, or had she put on some weight? Either way, she looked rather relieved in her khaata-peeta Punjabi home.
Could this be a redux of Barbie and her plus one, Ken? Have we left the Barbie beauty ideal behind, enough to gently poke fun at it? How insidious is this drip-drip-drip of messaging on beauty?
Here’s my experience. I consider myself a person free of most body issues. I like my jug ears, my crooked teeth, my whimsical haircuts, my skin colour, and my perfectly slim body. I am at peace with all of it. I am uninhibited about exhibiting my dog-bite scarred leg in a mini skirt well after my fiftieth year. Yet, thanks to the early impression of Swimsuit Barbie, I have never been able to wear a bikini without feeling fat. Not even when I was size zero.
Seven years is clearly too short a time to undo the impression of six decades. The new, realistic Barbies will have to be embraced by previous generations so that they can gift a larger notion of beauty to their young ones, once they have freed themselves from the impossible ideal that the early Barbies held them hostage to.
JASHODHARA CHAKRABORTI is an author, translator and columnist