By now the news has gone more than viral. Barbie is back in what is supposed to be a new and perhaps improved way. When I first heard the news juxtaposed with the images of Barbies, they certainly appeared far less radical than I had first expected based upon the outpouring of excitement and support from the Body Positive community. While I recognized the truth in what pretty much everyone I knew was saying: “This is a step in a positive direction,” I also began to seethe a bit in the anger it created within me. Barbie, who was created in 1959, was still eliciting such powerful responses from the adults surrounding me 57 years later in 2016. Clearly my frustration stemmed from 57 years of progress not being fully reflected, and while I am able to hold the truths of baby steps often being an integral part of social justice work, as well as the importance of infiltrating a capitalistic system from the inside to create change, I just wasn’t able to feel appreciative, excited, or celebratory over this tiny step, which took decades.
What I later realized, however, is that I don’t believe I was actually witnessing the responses fully from the adults around me, I had the strong sense that I was witnessing the projections of others’ adult selves onto the hopes and dreams of their childhood selves. I know this may seem like quite a leap for some, but as a Psychotherapist, I have become more used to understanding others’ behaviors in this way, or, at least, proposing that as one possibility for the joyful reaction. Perhaps all the plus size bloggers giving praise, for example, were imagining themselves as little girls receiving this news and feeling the excitement of being presented with more options than ever before.
It is also important for me to note here that upon seeing the news go viral, I took time to sit with my little girl self, let’s say Rachel at age 9 – how would she have received the news of these new Barbies? When I asked myself that I honestly had to answer that they would have actually disturbed me and turned me against my body more. My body still isn’t being represented by Barbie, but now there is a visual definition of “curvy,” the last socially acceptable term before fat, attached to a figure whose thighs still have a gap, whose arms are still skinny, and whose hips only represented the already idealized hourglass shape. My body dysmorphia likely would have increased as I would have become even more confused about what this was teaching me about how to exist in my own body. When I interviewed brilliant Ready To Stare designer and avid body positive writer, Alysse Dalessandro, regarding how she felt about the new Barbie crew, this is what she had to say: “I feel like it’s a step, but Barbie had a long way to go and to me, this isn’t enough to undo the damage that Barbie’s idealized shape has done to the way that we view bodies.
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I would argue that by making a Barbie that is curvy with a thigh gap, an hourglass figure, and a flat stomach, Barbie is still promoting the idea that there’s only one acceptable way to be plus size. I don’t look at that Barbie and see myself. I see more representation for acceptably fat bodies. I just refuse to continue celebrating that as enough.” We really couldn’t agree more!
Additionally vital to stress here, is that my direct qualm with these new Barbies lies in the labeling of a relatively thin or average sized doll as “curvy” (I am thrilled that various skin tones/ethnicities and hair/eye colors are being represented, and the idea of size diversity does feel promising). Even just utilizing the language “average sized” now, I’ve pissed myself off. Why? Because we have it constantly driven into our American Psyches that the average size of a womyn is actually size 16, which then leads to the whole “war on obesity” BS that you may be familiar with by now if you’ve read any of my previous articles. However, this “average” sized 16 womyn is never represented as any normalized size. At least with the previous original Barbie, we had come to the understanding through statistical analysis that if her measurements were to be translated to a human-sized scale, she wouldn’t even be able to stand on her own two feet without her ankles breaking.
The reading between the lines of that truth then becomes that this is a ridiculous and unrealistic standard, which Barbie herself proposes just by existing. The question for us at Wear Your Voice, then becomes, Why wasn’t the original Barbie eliminated altogether and this “curvy” Barbie proposed as a new slate to replace those obviously unrealistic standards? As our editor-in-chief and magazine founder, Ravneet Vohra, put it recently in her interview with the Bay Area News Group: “Mattel seems to have jumped onto the body positivity/diversity bandwagon and created what the market wants to see more of, which does however show they are listening. I applaud Mattel for trying, but until they make original Barbie disappear I am just not buying into it.” Vohra importantly points to the capitalistic nature of the move as a factor that is still making her not buy into what Barbie is trying to represent. Still, myself and most of team Wear Your Voice were surprised to see such strong backlash to our open critiques of Mattel and their intentions, as we wanted to explore this further. While we still stand strongly in our positioning, it was and is important to hold the other truths and points-of-view arising after the Barbie release uprising. One comes from our own team member, Virgie Tovar, who was quoted on the topic for Mashable, offers an important foil to the example I gave of my childhood self: “As a child, I honestly think I would have preferred the traditionally thin Barbie because I had already been taught to hate myself and my body.” With this one sentence, Virgie highlights the hard reality that many little girls will have already internalized society’s fat phobic views so deeply, that she comes to idolize this false form.
Sociology and Women’s Studies Professor, Melanie Klein, who is also the co-editor of the book Yoga and Body Image, did provide Wear Your Voice with some additionally interesting insight that we also felt important to share here, to provide a deeper look behind how this happened and who helped this positive step in the right direction come to fruition. We are all about recognizing the womyn in the trenches doing the work, and as Melanie states: “While there is obviously more work to be done in the evolution with Barbie specifically and the representation of girls and girls’ interests in general, I see this as a small feminist victory. Girl empowerment feminist advocacy groups have been pushing back against Mattel for years and a few of those individuals consulted Mattel on these changes. This means corporations are listening to our voices. That and the feminists behind the scenes that helped bring about these changes from the inisde out are things to be celebrated even as we move forward. I’m proud of the work Jess Weiner, author/speaker/brand consultant, and Melissa Atkins Wardy, author of “Redefining Girly,” put into making this happen. They do great work, have integrity and have been major feminist movers and shakers in creating some huge changes.”
As Weiner shared in her own words: “Long before I began consulting for brands, I’ve been working in the self-esteem space to champion more diverse and varied representation of women and girls in the media. As with any major change, there are so many factors that help bring us to this point. Yes, we need activists and educators to help unpack the impact of lack of representation and to apply pressure when those images are nowhere to be found. Yes, we need parents who are vocal and demand more variety in the content they purchase (and then we need parents (and all of us) to show up and purchase it!) But we also need champions behind the scenes like the ones I worked with at Barbie who have long been committed to taking this step forward. It is not easy to make systemic change within a business. And perhaps my greatest gift in this process has been to see and understand just how many internal obstacles and intricacies there are to what can seem like such a simple change. So even a change “that’s about time” TAKES TIME. And patience. And strategy. Collectively, we have changed the narrative. Let’s not stop here. If Change is a We Thing – then WE are just beginning this journey together.”
It is obviously easy for outsiders to the process to judge, but as an intersectional feminist publication, we also wanted to end on a note of applauding all the womyn who are in those sexist trenches daily, doing the difficult work so that ultimately more radical change can happen!