Barbie rears her too pretty head

Leave it to Sports Illustrated‘s swimsuit issue to spark a renewed debate on unrealistic images of women and the effect advertising has on our body image. Though I have not yet read the issue of the popular magazine (I refuse to pay money for it, and I haven’t been to the dentist lately) I’ve seen some images. It seems Mattel is using the sports rag to promote its most famous and most controversial doll as the perfect male fantasy: she’s impossibly thin, improbably well-endowed, and irrefutably non-confrontational when faced with male desire — as only a hunk of plastic can be. Benign advertising you might say? Only if you think that beauty is skin deep.

However, as breathing and thinking organisms, we women know that our concepts of beauty (as varied and numerous as they should be) are narrowly defined by those who craft the abundant but homogenous images girls see in the media, particularly in advertising. Beauty is much more complex than round breasts and firm buttocks gleaming from the printed page. Whether or not we consciously identify with these images, they affect our perception of ourselves: “She has long, thin legs, why don’t I?” Thus, any image that is widely disseminated cannot be dismissed as “harmless.” It’s one thing to use photographic manipulation to sculpt and refine real women’s bodies (which is problematic), but it’s another, more insidious form of misogyny to replace our bodies altogether with a plastic representation that cannot speak for herself — perhaps the ultimate male fantasy: an acquiescent, sexually desirable female body that cannot reject you.

The fact that the original model for Sports Illustrated is a toy destined for young girls adds yet another layer of misogynistic messaging to girls: Be perfect and Be silent. As Leah Borromeo writes in The Guardian, “When you get over the initial shock of a hypersexualised plastic toy selling sun, sex and sand, you start to unpick the symbols behind it.” In a world where boys feel entitled to rape unconscious girls and accusations of sexual harassment are dismissed as rants of a women scorned, we should be very concerned about what these messages say to girls about their ability to stand up for themselves.

The largest problem for me is the tacit acceptance of Barbie as “just a toy.” See the comments following an article about the artist Nikolay Lamm, who last year created a more realistic image of Barbie using 3D printing. Being a student of semiotics, I have to assert that nothing is “just” anything. Everything is symbolic, though the interpretations of individuals may differ (which is what makes creative production of any kind so vibrant and interesting).

To be fair and give the counter-argument some space, a Mattel spokesperson told Time, “In essence, Barbie is always asked to apologize for what she looks like…. The message there is to be unapologetic.” She can’t apologize if her full-lipped mouth is permanently shut.

Please discuss…because that’s the beauty of symbols: we each see what our unique perspective brings to the situation.

An edition of Sports Illustrated featuring Barbie dolls wearing swimsuits has caused controversy. Photograph: EPA (via The Guardian)

An edition of Sports Illustrated featuring Barbie dolls wearing swimsuits has caused controversy. Photograph: EPA (via The Guardian)

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6 thoughts on “Barbie rears her too pretty head

  1. Those are very silly looking female dolls, but they have such a strong influence on young girls. I never bought a Barbie for my daughter. I did not like the ridiculous body of Barbie. I did not want my daughter to think that this was the way she should look. And now the models in magazines are airbrushed and “photoshopped” , setting impossible goals for young girls. But there are now more people speaking out about what makes real feminine beauty. Thank you for this blog!

    • Thanks, Polly. I see girls starving themselves to be “Barbie thin” at my school, and it scares me. The photoshopped images everywhere are awful, too, and thankfully more and more real people who have been photoshopped are calling them out on the practice. Maybe some day, some way, Madison Avenue and Mattel will realize that we each have our own unique beauty, even (especially?) if we have belly bulges or wrinkles.

    • Yes, thanks for asking and sorry it took me so long to reply. Perhaps the moment has passed, but as long as you are respectful of my privacy and opinions (even if yours are different) in your tweets, feel free! Let me know if you need me to change my settings to allow a tweet (I’m not a tweeter 😉

    • Kim, ain’t that the truth! Some of the comments I’ve read about the Barbie debate seem to think that we are disrespecting tall, thin, blond women by demanding other models of dolls. Having been one of those (although I looked nothing like Barbie, and nobody truly does), I have to disagree. As usual, many people are missing the point entirely… *heavy sigh*

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