Body Image, Barbie and Me

Tracing the changeable trajectory of our attitudes towards body image across the last century illustrates just how varied and complex our appreciation is for the many different shapes of the female form. At the Merit Club we decided to begin exploring this controversial topic. Body-confidence not only shapes our physical appearance, but also our day-to-day approach to our lifestyles, our happiness, and in turn our successes. We’ve thought about our own relationship to our body confidence and how this has changed across the turn of the century for us, with new forms of communication, new ideals, and new pressures upon us as we’ve grown up. Have you ever felt rubbish about your body or the way you look? How many times do you look at your body in the bathroom mirror and form a judgement of it and yourself? On a daily basis, weekly, monthly… it’s difficult to believe it’s never. Body image can affect anyone. We are bombarded with images of beauty ideals, our gaze distorted through the lens of the media and social platforms every day. Too skinny, too fat, too fake, too unhealthy, the ideal, just right… How we approach body-image, our own and our perception of others, is constantly challenged.


First, it’s important to address just how much celebrity culture, stardom and its ideals have changed over the last century, with the representation of female body image in tow. From the pin-up curvy and buxom Gibson girls of the 1910s, to the 1920s flapper dancers flaunting short dresses and long slender legs, the ideal body image at the beginning of the 20th century was as varied as their sense of style. Next up came an era of Hollywood starlets establishing ideals for the female form, with screen icons such as Bette Davis, Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford and Katherine Hepburn battling with the ingrained patriarchal gaze perpetuated by the Hollywood screen, rebelling against and fuelling their screen “goddess” stereotypes at the same time. The glamorization of body-confidence and voluptuousness was continued into the 1950s, with Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor standing out as the generations’ sex symbols and ideals for beauty. The 1960s brought Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton to the centre of attention for the fashion-conscious, and with them ideals of more slender frames, followed by 70s revolutions of androgynous hippie looks, disco fuelled 'Studio 54' style, and an appreciation for natural beauty gradually beginning to applaud more diversity and empowerment. In came the 80s and with it Jane Fonda’s athletic approach to fitness taking off, where body image became increasingly focused on being tall and athletic. At the end of the decade the original “supermodels” stormed onto the scene, with Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, Helena Christensen leading the way and Elle Macpherson as “The Body”. In contrast came the 1990s, a decade in which Kate Moss led the runways as an iconic symbol for ‘the waif’ and ‘heroin chic’ androgynous look. Then the 2000s turned a corner once again, as abs and toned bodies took back the limelight with models such as Gisele Bundchen. And where are we now? In our digital era, with the rise of social media, and our eagerly tapping consumer society, we are constantly bombarded with images of body ideals and ways to change our bodies. Celebrity culture has exploded, with figures such as Kim Kardashian and Nicki Minaj flaunting their curves, together with a generation of  #instafamous bloggers, fitness fanatics with abs of steel all over instagram showing off their latest workouts and diet strategies, thrown into the mix with reality television and an increasing familiarity with plastic surgery and body enhancement. The subject of body image has never been so contentious, and arguably the way we look at ourselves and our bodies has never been so hotly debated and broadcasted.   

Throughout many of these times has been a figurehead who has witnessed and lived alongside all of these dramatic changes: Barbie. Barbie was first launched in 1959, presented as “beautiful barbie” and the first fashion doll with a three-dimensional adult form, the new look for teenage dolls, and with it her breasts and slender figure.  This in turn became the major contention for Barbie, fuelling the backlash against her, suggesting that she was one, too provocative and overtly sexualised, and two, that her tiny frame perpetuates unrealistic body ideals. Her critics have argued that if she was a real woman, her body-fat ratio would be nigh on impossible and so dangerous that she would be unable to menstruate. In 2016, in the face of her critics and in celebration of more diverse representations of the female body, Mattel released 3 new body shapes for Barbie, in petite, tall and curvy, with seven different skin tones, twenty-two eye colours and twenty-four hairstyles. Yet,  debate still reigns on whether children should be encouraged to play with Barbie and whether she perpetuates gender stereotypes and damaging body image ideals.

However, I can’t help but question, does Barbie really make young girls want to be skinny? Do children really think of her as a real person that they want to emulate, rather than simply a toy and a creation of their imagination who they can talk to and play with. It was the latest advert that’s airing on television at the moment that really triggered me to think about Barbie and her influence today. With the campaign slogans, If You Can Dream It Be It and You Can Be Anything, it seems that the marketing team behind Barbie are on a drive to push her as a role-model. With over 180 different careers, the many different figures Barbie represents have come a long way; she is not simply a fashion-doll to dress up. In my childhood, there were times I played with Barbies, yet I never thought of her as a figure who I aspired to become in terms of physical appearance. For me, it was never about her as an ideal woman. For a start, she’s blonde and I’m brunette! I didn’t think I had to turn blonde to be accepted as attractive or successful. Rather, she was a character I could use in my made-up stories and games. She was just a toy, and one among many other different toys from teddies to Sylvanian families, to ponies, cars and train sets, that all traversed across different gender stereotypes. I spoke to my mother about Barbies, and she too just saw Barbie for her personality. For her, Barbie embodied something cool, and grown up. It wasn’t to do with her figure, it wasn’t to do with her affinity with pink, it was just Barbie as a fun doll to play with. With this in mind, I want to question just how far we should deconstruct Barbie and what she represents? How critical can we really be of a doll, that can actually foster imagination and play? Is the crux of the body-image issue not somewhere far more disembodied and blurred in today’s society?


Yes… we come back to social media and our image-obsessed world. Something far less tangible and a space where there is less and less room for imagination. Our approach to body-image can be influenced by so many things, and the impact of these influences certainly don’t stop at childhood.  As Barbie’s recent transformation has exemplified, with the turn of the century and our digital world, our focus on body-image has to be adjusted. The teams behind Barbie still have a long way to go if they wish to represent the true diversity of our generation of women, but the same can be said for our own outlook on body-image. How far we allow the digital world to weigh down on our imagination and acceptance of body-image is something we have to challenge and stand up for.

Words by Lottie Franklin