The Unrealistic Face of Perfection


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The untarnished porcelain skin was smooth against my seven-year-old hands; I never wanted to let my Barbie go. Her straight, silky blonde hair tickled my skin as I led her into her Barbie Dream House. I did not know this at the time, but this doll would shape my self-esteem for years to come. I dreamed of having her long blonde hair and tiny body, she was my idea of perfection. I wanted her life; to have a boyfriend like Ken, her pink Corvette convertible, and to have a mansion with anything I could dream of. Playing with Barbie was always the cool thing to do as a child, from setting play dates with friends to play Barbie’s to dressing up your dream doll from head to toe. At my young naive age, I was unaware that the perfection of Barbie was unattainable.

Throughout the world, Barbie has been an influential icon to girls who strive to be just like her. Barbie the fashion doll was created in March 1959 and is the figurehead of Mattel dolls and accessories. She has been an important part of the fashion doll market for years, and has been the subject of numerous controversies and lawsuits, often involving the parody of the doll and her lifestyle (Winterman).

Barbie was unlike any other doll when she came onto the market. Before Barbie, children primarily played baby dolls. These dolls would teach girls how to be moms. They would teach children how to care for babies, feed them, and make sure they were always safe. When children owned a Barbie, their mindset changed and they no longer cared for their baby doll. Instead of caring for their new object of affection, little girls hoped to become their new toy. They also saw more opportunities available for their future. Girls learned that they could go to college, get a job, be successful and earn an income that would allow them to independently support themselves. Barbie’s endless supply of clothes, shoes, houses, and other accessories caused young girls to believe they too could own a limitless supply.

Not every country is fascinated by Barbie’s appeal. In Fiji, the citizens view women of healthy weight as attractive. Television was introduced to Fiji in 1995 and a trend of dieting and losing weight began (Generation M). In 1995 Saudi Arabia banned the buying and selling of Barbie’s because it violated strict dress code for women (Developmental Psychology). The Saudi Arabians are ahead of the rest of the world in recognizing the negative impact and psychological influence Barbie has on young girls turning into women. Each country has their own perspective on how Barbie affects their culture.

In a study for Developmental Psychology, Helga Dittmar, Suzanne Ive, and Emma Hailliwell showed 55 out of 162 children between the ages five and eight, pictures of Barbie. The children exposed to the Barbie pictures reported they had a greater desire for a thinner body and expressed a lower self esteem than the other girls who were shown a size sixteen doll (plus size, average American women is size 12-16) or not picture at all. The studies’ findings imply that, “even if dolls cease to function as aspirational role models for older girls, early exposure to dolls epitomizing an unrealistically thin body ideal may damage girls’ body image, which would contribute to an increased risk of disordered eating and weight cycling” (Developmental Psychology). Most young girls who play with Barbie Dolls do not realize it affects their views of what is considered beautiful and acceptable for women, as well as how they felt about body image. The influence Barbie has on the way the world views women commonly goes unnoticed. Barbie has a negative influence on young girls, making them feel self-conscious about their appearance by comparing her impractical features to their realistic bodies. If Barbie was life size, she would possess impossible measurements; amounting to a size four, 101 pounds, and the unbelievable height of six foot (Winterman).

Some girls have even taken the extreme measure of mutilating their bodies to mimic Barbie’s. In 2010, reality television star Heidi Montag endured ten plastic surgeries simultaneously at the young age of 23 years old. Montag was interviewed to find what influenced her to go under the knife and Montag has stated in several interviews that she just wanted to “look like Barbie” (Developmental Psychology). Would the media show more realistic women if Barbie was never created? Would it change how the media began to portray women and their idea of beauty?

The average girl from ages three to eleven own at least ten Barbie dolls and spends hours playing with them and dressing them up (Mirasol). The more time anyone spends with anything, the more influence it has on them. It is estimated that eight million people in the United States have an eating disorder, and only 10-15% of them are male. Which leaves 85-90% of them to be female. 80% of those females are under the age of 20. Many admitted that they started worrying about their weight at the age of four and six years old, around the age that a girl gets her first Barbie doll (Mirasol). Many of the girls that have eating disorders admitted that Barbie played a crucial role on their perspective of behavior and looks (Gohlar). They were led to believe that the only way to be happy was to not only be pretty, but to be “perfect.”

In 1965, Mattel came out with a “Slumber Party Barbie” that came with a complete bathroom set including a scale permanently set at 110 pounds. The doll also came with a book entitled “How to Lose Weight,” and inside the book had the advice: “Don’t Eat” (Grenoble). The matching Ken doll also came with slumber party accessories, but his were milk and cookies, sending a very different message about body image and weight for different genders.

Barbie is also known for her looks, perfect hair, makeup and clothes. Barbie has also led girls to spending hours caking on makeup, destroying their hair with dye, using straightening and curling irons, and begging their parents for clothes from the most expensive and popular stores all to try and achieve this perfect look. The knowledge drilled into children’s developing minds both boys and girls, through advertising is that Barbie is the ideal looking woman, sticks in a child’s mind as they grow older. Ukrainian model, Valeria Lukyanova, has paid over $800,000 in order to look like Barbie:  she now has an 18” waist, 39” hips, and 34” bust. If Barbie was a real person her measurements would be somewhere around an 18” waist, 33” hips, and 39” bust, which is pretty close to Lukyanova’s. Not only has she gotten plastic surgery, she wears blue contacts and changed her wardrobe to one that would resemble what Barbie would wear (Krupnick). The fact that Lukyanova and many others find this acceptable and beautiful shows the significance America puts on superficiality. Lukyanova is not the only woman to drastically alter her looks to imitate Barbie. A woman named Sarah Burge is also coined as the “real-life Barbie.” She spent around $900,000 on over 100 surgeries to achieve the “Barbie look.” Burge now claims that she has a lot more confidence and admits that “it’s okay for women to be something they’re not” (Eugenios).

I conducted a survey on several Michigan State students about how Barbie may have influenced them when they were young. One student said, “Barbie is known as the pretty doll. You see Barbie’s long blonde hair, blue eyes, and weight, and assimilate that to how normal humans should look and aspire to be like her” (Burgess). Another student said, “I definitely saw Barbie as someone who was beautiful and wanted to look like her. It never led me to develop an eating disorder or anything like that, but I really wished I was blonde and tall over being short and brunette at the time” (Luettke). The last student said, “Barbie influenced me in a way that she was a role model to me, and other people my age looked/dressed like her, which is how I wanted to look when I was young” (Fullett). Barbie was every little girls’ role model, and even though she personified many aspects that were admirable, she also represented some that weren’t.

To promote National Eating Disorder Awareness Week (Feb. 27-March 5) the professionals and volunteers of South Shore Eating Disorder Collaborative created a Barbie called “Get Real Barbie.” The first thing anyone looking at “Get Real Barbie” will notice is that she does not look like the original, classic Barbie. This life-size figure is actually as “real” as Barbie gets. Barbie’s unrealistic proportions have such a vast effect on children that by sharing this “Get Real Barbie” with the public, discussions can begin about the unrealistic media images that often lead young people to diet and exercise in dangerous and unhealthy ways. Those who diet are eight times more likely to develop eating disorders (National Eating Disorders). Women come in all different shapes and sizes and the SSEDC (South Shore Easting Disorder Collaborative) and NEDA (National Easting Disorder Association) wants to help young women throughout Boston “get real” information, “get real” expectations and “get real” help.

Being a proud daughter of Beverly Price, who owns a holistic eating disorder treatment center and outpatient mental health clinic in Royal Oak, Michigan called Inner Door Center, I am an avid promoter for eating disorder awareness. My expert Mother admits: “Body image is influenced by many aspects–from politics to the mass media. These social contexts set an ideal that has been difficult to achieve and has a powerful influence on body dissatisfaction, which may develop into disordered eating. Even at a young age, our society is shaping a negative body image and an unrealistic goal. Young girls have been known to play with a figure that demonstrates a highly unlikely ideal of a rail-thin woman with a natural bust line that is physiologically impossible. Barbie is the first exposure to the unrealistic ideal of what someone is supposed to look like according to our society. From this exposure, a foundation is set for development of body dissatisfaction as one strives to obtain an unrealistic goal. It is important, at that age, to promote healthy eating, moderate physical activity, and participation in activities that promote self-esteem to reduce the influence of these images” (Price). After I stopped playing with Barbie, I often struggled with my weight as a child, and would often compare myself to people around me that were labeled as “prettier” or “skinnier” than me. My generation is exposed to a vast amount of media that portrays the idea of beauty and what it takes to be beautiful such as advertisements, magazines, fashion shows and celebrities. As I grow up, I realize that there will always be people considered “prettier” or “skinnier” than me, but what truly makes people who they are, isn’t their physical characteristics, but who they are as a person. Personality and how we treat others ultimately trumps the idea of beauty in the real world. I hope that by the time I am a parent, I can expose my children to a “real life Barbie” so they do not become brainwashed by society’s incorrect view of “beauty.”

By: Marketing and Social Media Intern Elana Price and Guest Writer Becca Luettke

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