Barbies absolutely do not influence little girls in any way when it comes to ideals of body size, says the lead Barbie designer at Mattel. Furthermore, the doll’s inhuman proportions were made that way simply as a functional necessity, “for girls to easily dress and undress.”
As someone who was obsessed with Barbies until about the age of 10—and who has been prone to fears of getting fat, on and off, since right around then—I cannot say for certain whether there’s a connection or not. But what I can say with some conviction is this: This new explanation, courtesy of Barbie’s vice president of design Kim Culmone, is total BS.
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“Barbie's body was never meant to be realistic…Primarily it’s for function for the little girl, for real life fabrics to be able to be turned and sewn, and have the outfit still fall properly on her body,” she continues in her no-holds-barred interview with Fast Company. To that, the interviewer follows up with (yes!), “So to get the clean lines of fashion at Barbie’s scale, you have to use totally unrealistic proportions?”
Culmone remains steadfast. “You do!” she says. “Because if you’re going to take a fabric that’s made for us, and turn a seam for a cuff or on the body, her body has to be able to accommodate how the clothes will fit her.”
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When she’s asked whether Mattel would ever consider altering Barbie’s stacked and skinny body to reflect more realistic proportions, Culmone says that, while it’s not out of the question, there are two important points to ponder: One is that moms like to hand Barbie outfits down over generations, and changing the doll’s body size could seriously mess with that tradition. Plus, making such body-size changes wouldn’t happen without a clear reason, she notes, adding, “So to me, there isn’t an objective to change the proportion of Barbie currently.”
Finally, the design VP transforms herself into a child psychologist, explaining that girls do not make body comparisons when playing with Barbie.
“Girls view the world completely differently than grown-ups do. They don’t come at it with the same angles and baggage and all that stuff that we do. Clearly, the influences for girls on those types of issues, whether it’s body image or anything else, it’s proven, it’s peers, moms, parents, it’s their social circles,” she says (with Fast Company, brilliantly, linking “proven” to a study showing that Barbie may in fact be connected with body dysmorphia and eating disorders).
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But studies don’t faze Culmone. “When they’re playing, they’re playing,” she continues. “It’s a princess-fairy-fashionista-doctor-astronaut, and that’s all one girl. She’s taking her Corvette to the moon, and her spaceship to the grocery store. That is literally how girls play.”
So, just a few things here: First, Culmone does have a point, as I honestly don’t recall, while acting out bizarre scenarios with or chopping off the hair of my Barbies, that I made any connection whatsoever between my pre-pubescent self and the strange, nipple-less, pointy-toed bodies of the dolls. (Though I do recall one 1975 version of Barbie's little sister, Growing Up Skipper, who GREW BREASTS when you wound her arm backwards, and that I had some inkling that this was scarily related to my future.) I did intuit, of course, that the oversized physiques of my Cher, Candi and Bionic Woman dolls were inferior to real-Barbie’s petite grace. So I do hear what she’s saying. And yet…
How can anyone seriously know if Barbie did or did not help teach me or anyone else what beautiful girls are supposed to look like?
Here's a clue: Culmone says Barbie's body is designed with clothes in mind—they just fit better on her unrealistic figure. I can't help but make comparisons to the fashion industry, with its parade of scary-skinny models, and the not-so-mysterious affect it's had on us all.
As for whether I'll let my own 5-year-old daughter play with Barbie, so far I haven't. But she's also never asked for one—and, to my knowledge, had never heard of such a thing, though I just asked her and she said, without missing a beat, "She's a doll who has blond hair and some pink outfit." Just goes to show, you can never be too sure about what seeps in.