Negative Body Image Barbie – I’d Like to See That 🙂
Often when conversations about negative body image come up, someone raises the idea that Barbie starts it all – imagine the pretty pink package: Negative Body Image Barbie. Hilarious!
But seriously, I’ve been uneasy about Barbie for as long as I can remember, even when playing with the plastic princess with my friend Michelle when I was a kid. My brothers usually mangled any toys they came into contact with, and my Barbie was no exception – the rare doll I had as a girl was usually shorn or headless. Good thing I preferred playing cowboys or climbing trees 🙂
However, Michelle was an only child at that stage, and had a truly impressive collection of Barbies, with dozens of outfits, shoes, bags… you get the picture. I was so jealous 🙂
I was a skinny kid, really skinny: Michelle’s family called me Bones. Boney knees and boney elbows, that was me. I wasn’t round or shaped like Barbie, and nor were any of the women I knew; not even Michelle’s mum who seemed quite glamourous to me with her long hair, long skirts and filmy lingerie.
I realise now of course that I was about ten years old when Michelle and I “played Barbies”, and though I was jealous of her Barbie collection I was quite entrenched in the idea that I was ugly and that’s just the way it was. So any negative body image Barbie effects didn’t really take hold on me.
And Then There Were Three….
I limited my own daughters’ access to the Barbieverse because I was concerned about sexual stereotyping and negative body image Barbie seemed to really feed that.
My eldest daughter’s first Barbie was a gift from a schoolfriend, I think her mother thought she was somehow deprived because she had no Barbies!
Barbie never had so many adventures as she did in my girls’ playroom, where she drove trucks and played at a toy toolbench, was painted all kinds of colours, rode toy dogs and spent hours in the sandpit with all the other toys. Rarely was she dressed and preened.
Is a co-incidence that my eldest daughter’s body image is robust and unshakeable?
She knows she looks and feels great even though her weight fluctuates. She eats what she wants to, when she wants to, and I’m not sure she even knows how much she weighs, she pays more attention to how her clothes fit. To my relief, at age 24 she’s finally paying attention to the quality of her food as well 🙂
Research into “Negative Body Image Barbie”
To answer the question about young girls and Barbie’s impact on their body image, researchers at two British Universities studied young girls who viewed images of Barbie and Emme, a more-realistic shaped doll than Barbie.
Before you read on, let me say that I truly don’t think that the makers of Barbie ever set out to create generations of girls who have negative body image, and yes I do know there is no such creation as Negative Body Image Barbie.
And yes I know negative body image is way more complex than one little plastic doll.
But just like the makers of thalidomide didn’t set out to create a thousands of babies whose bodies did not completely form, when they became aware of the unintended side-effect they had to change direction.
What these researchers found is worth considering, and it’s time we really started paying attention to these issues, not just lip service.
The researchers, from Sussex and the University of the West of England, looked at the effects of images of the two dolls on almost 200 primary school-age girls aged five to eight.
After looking at the images, the girls were asked to pick figures that represented
- their actual body shape
- the body shape they ideally desired and
- their ideal body shape as an adult woman.
The researchers then analysed the difference between the shape the girls thought they had, and the shape they desired. The five and six year old girls were more dissatisfied with their own shape and wanted more extreme thinness after viewing the Barbie images than after viewing the other images. The six and seven years olds had an even stronger response, The Times reports.
But Girls Know Barbie is Not Real….?
Mattel, Barbie’s manufacturer, insists that girls know the doll is not realistic, etc.
But I’m not so sure that’s true.
Think about yourself as a six or seven year old child. Have you ever tried to remember anything that happened to you in early childhood? I have a few memories of specific notable people or events, but not really very many memories.
From my counselling practice I know that most people have the same experience.
The reason for that, I believe, is that until we’re about seven years old the part of our mind that we call the subconscious is wide open and taking in everything going on around us. The subconscious mind has no filters, no evaluation processes, no cogitive challenge mechanisms, it simply absorbs and stores information exactly as presented.
By the time we complete the first seven year cycle of life, our conscious mind is starting to take over.
That’s why our subconscious beliefs and values run our lives as adults – at least until we dig them out, make them conscious, and make different decisions.
So, imagine the four year old cutely playing with Barbie.
She might spend hours with that dolly, sleeping with it, taking it to family events; little fingers struggling with the little clothes, mixing blouses and skirts and trousers and jackets in weird colour and style combinations; handling every part of Barbie’s thin thighs, huge breasts, long blonde hair and tiny waist. She’ll spend way more time talking to, imagining and dreaming with that dolly than she will with her own mother, probably.
And during all those hours she’ll be taking in the size and shape and proportions of that distorted female body. It’s all happening while her own conscious mind is not able to filter and sort and make decisions about the unrealistic reality of the doll she loves.
Imagine what she makes that mean.
And doesn’t even know that her own physical template she will grow into is so different from the one that may be so firmly ingrained in her subconscious mind.
Does Negative Body Image Barbie’s influence even matter?
- Five year old girls and boys, in Australia, in 2009, are being admitted to hospital for voluntarily restricting their eating because they think they’re too fat.
- One in ten adolescent girls are putting their fingers down their throats and vomiting up their food in those years when they most need nutrients to develop healthy bodies and minds, causing life-long health problems – because they have negative body image. Some experts say the number is even higher, that bulimia is the most undiagnosed health condition in society. The condition continues for decades, sufferers don’t just “grow out of it” as adults.
- Over half of all new cases of anorexia begin with a moderate diet
- 25% of people who have anorexia will die. It is the mental health condition with the highest death rate. Overwhelmingly, the victims are amongst our smartest young women.
- Up to 96% of women are unhappy with how they look, and are funding the multiple-hundreds-of-billions of dollars industries that both feed the negative images and sell the “solutions” that don’t work anyway!
And there are hundreds and hundreds of similar statistics, from every country on the planet, all affecting girls and women and slowly starting to affect boys.
Is it all Barbie’s fault?
Clearly the answer is “no”.
Look around at the world; images of unrealistically thin women, often semi-naked and almost always airbrushed into plastic perfection, are used now more than ever to sell everything from cars to houses to computer software. Our kids see tens of thousands of these advertisements every year, more in one month than their grandparents saw in their entire lives. Actresses in popular TV shows and movies are also unrealistically and very often unhealthily obsessively thin, and they also feature on magazine covers.
There’s no escaping it: our culture thinks anorexically, and at the same time we condemn the young people who are “so vain” as to want to be thin.
Yes there is some balance coming into the debate, but it’s slow and frankly it’s not making a difference yet.
Girls and women around the world are still DYING, by the thousands, from eating disorders.
Those who are not life-threateningly affected are surely suffering anyway from negative body image, and limiting the activities in their lives because they don’t look perfect.
This is not liberation for women.
Our lives are as surely shackled by this wretched dollar-driven body image industry as women in less-politically free countries are limited by extreme religious laws.
What can you do about it?
I always subscribe to Ghandi’s call to “be the change you want to see in the world”, so begin with yourself:
Stop buying the magazines that dissect every part of women’s appearance and crow about their imperfections – and then sell you hundreds of pricey so-called solutions. There are great alternatives on the newsagent shelves that will feed your mind and your own sense of value as a human and a woman, and take your focus off the plastic princess celebrity culture.
Start watching your thinking. When you notice you’re comparing yourself to other women, examine what you’re saying and decide if that’s what you really want to believe.
Stop criticizing your body’s “imperfections”. It’s called fat talk or body snarking and it hurt you, it hurts other women, it hurts us all. And you deserve better, honest you do.
Start appreciating what your body actually can do, achieve, help you experience. That body you’re in is helping you read this page right now, carrying all the negative energy of your thoughts, and still doing the thousands of little tasks it must do, to keep your soul/life force/whatever you believe, connected to life on this planet in this time.
Most of all, start allowing yourself to feel exactly what you’re feeling, right now. It’s okay. You’re okay. It’s not your fault that you feel the way you do, and you can take small steps to change it, because the feelings you’re having are YOUR feelings, the thoughts you’re having are YOUR thoughts, and the great news is, you can do whatever you want to with them, including changing them to ones that work for who you want to be.
If you’re still not sure that Negative Body Image Barbie is real, go have a look at what a real live woman would look like if she was shaped like Barbie. Then look around at the world and think about what you see….
Go for it. What have you got to lose?
This page is part of the Negative Body Image Primer – read more.