The headline from Wired’s website says it all: “Like real people, Barbie now comes in different sizes.”
Barbie has been a profit-pusher for Mattel for decades, but the rise of other dolls has reduced her margins to the size of her ridiculously small waistline. Since Barbie’s debut in 1959, her unrealistic body proportions have been a source of ridicule and scorn – and rightly so. By some calculations, the doll’s proportions on a real-life woman standing 5-foot-6 would be 39-21-33.
Mattel recently rolled out a new line of Barbies which are ethnically diverse and include tall, petite and curvy frames to better reflect how real women actually look. The changes matter because Barbie and other popular culture representations of women have been adding to body image issues for girls for years.
Body image is among the topics covered in Boys and Girls Clubs’ Smart Girls program. Vicki Hart, site manager for Boys and Girls Clubs of West Central Missouri’s downtown site, has led Smart Girls and thinks Barbie’s new body types are steps in the right direction.
“I remember, as a girl, (Barbie) was what we were supposed to look like and if we didn’t then we weren’t going to be successful,” Hart said. “I remember wanting to be an airline stewardess, and an airline stewardess had to be 110 pounds and like 6 feet tall. No way am I ever going to be 6 feet tall – or 100 pounds, for that matter.”
Through Smart Girls, Hart and other leaders promote self-esteem and support.
“Girls have enough to struggle with without having to worry about their body image,” Hart said. “They have a hard time looking in the mirror because they think they should look like … Barbie, so we work really hard on self-image. … What we try to instill in the girls is that everybody is different, everybody’s body is different – different color hair, different color eyes – but no matter what, everybody is important.”
To reinforce those points, Smart Girls uses interactive activities such as having girls cut words out of a magazine that they believe fit with a provided photo of a model; they then cut out words they believe fit themselves and compare the lists.
“We want them to know it’s OK to look the way they do,” Hart said.
I got a chance to chat with about a dozen girls who participate in the Smart Girls program at the Boys and Girls Clubs’ downtown site. They generally agreed that the original Barbie does not look like real women do, and that they would be more likely to play with the new, more realistic-looking Barbies.
As we discussed the pros and cons of the new dolls, one girl made a savvy economic observation: Girls won’t get to dress them up as much because old Barbie outfits won’t fit on the new dolls. Parents will have to buy new clothes to match up with Barbie’s new shapes.
“That’s the good part, getting to dress them,” the girl said.
Hart and I agreed that the “curvy” Barbie looks a little shorter and a little rounder than the original doll, but it’s not anywhere near plus size. “Curvy” is a bit of an overstatement, but at least it is a step forward. I really like this tweet from AC Sullivan that was shared in the Wired piece: “The fact that it’s just a new kind of Barbie & not like, Barbie’s Fat Friend is making me real happy, is all.”
Hart contends that one way girls will learn to embrace who they are is to support one another unconditionally.
“I really stress with these (kids) to have each other’s backs,” she said. “I think it is important for them to build each other up. … We really try to instill in the girls to support each other and that it is OK to be who you are.”
Bob Satnan is the communications director for Sedalia School District 200.