So what do you guys think of the new Barbie Mattel has rolled out this week? That’s right, after about, oh, thirty or so years of pressure from feminist groups, Mattel has designed three new dolls to better and more accurately represent women. Joining the classically, completely unrealistically-proportioned original are tall, curvy and petite models. It’s almost good, except that tall and petite retain the mini-waist, massive thigh gap, and big tits. Only curvy has an (unnaturally) pointed toe dipped in reality. Are we getting somewhere, though? May I ask, if you played with Barbies as a kid did her “perfect” figure influence your body image in any way? Did you undress her and think, when I’m an adult I’m going to have huge, protruding, hard plastic tits? Did you think, my rib cage is going to end in a dramatically staved-in waist, then puff out into rubbery, yet flawlessly taut hips? Did you think about her height and weight? Did you see in her the ideal feminine form?
I didn’t. I thought her perma-pointed toes were weird. I didn’t like her fixed hand or elbow positioning. It was a drag that you couldn’t open her thighs, that only her knees were poseable. At least you could lift her arms, I guess, and swivel her head on her neck. I did not look to her as the model for how my womanly body should look. Or would look. It was my mom’s body I examined for clues about how I might turn out, and she dismissed Barbie with a wave of her grown-up tomboy hand.
Barbie’s body, for me, was about her sexuality. While I enjoyed dressing her in all kinds of styles, I enjoyed undressing her and physically engaging her with Ken more. Her go-to seduction outfit (this being the 1980s) was a tight red pleather pencil skirt and a black-and-white deep-v, major shoulder padded houndstooth jacket, worn with nothing underneath. She would bob over to Ken (my favorite was a Jordan Knight from New Kids on the Block replica) and he would tear open that jacket, revealing her smooth, rigid mounds (you couldn’t really call them breasts, because everyone knew the real thing had nipples and areola) and burying his face there. I’d plant her fixed little hand between his legs, going right for a grab of his smooth, hard…bump.
That was always a disappointment. Why couldn’t Ken have a penis? The worst Kens wore flesh-colored underwear that was basically a waistband and legholes stamped in the plastic of his nether-region.
Barbie and Ken would mash their closed mouths together in passion, Barbie’s overdrawn, vivid lipstick never leaving a mark on Ken. I hated not being able to open her thighs to wrap around his chest or waist. I had to settle for bending her knees out as perpendicularly to her body as possible, so that Ken could get it in. Their shiny bodies rubbed against each other until they both came, as my best friend from childhood watched in fascination.
Many years later, my friend described to me the things I would have Barbie and Ken do, the noises I would make, the positions. It hardly stood out to me as noteworthy, because sex was the whole point of playing with Barbies, but she said she’d learned a lot from the moves. We were eight and ten. I was the eight year-old. And I honestly have no idea where I got the scenarios. There wasn’t porn lying around (or hidden away in) our house. I escaped childhood without becoming a victim of sexual abuse. I wasn’t allowed to watch R movies, not that anything exciting really happens there. I didn’t have an older sibling regaling me with his or her exploits. I did, however, join in all the playground talk about sex, where everyone threw in their ideas, demoing moves and telling stories on their parents. Maybe some of what we were doing and saying was actually like sex. Probably not much of it resembled anything done by real, consenting adults.
And then there was the time I heard a loud metallic boom outside late one night and looked out my window to see my next-door neighbor’s live-in nanny rolling around naked on the swingset’s slide with her boyfriend. That was definitely sex.
While I may not have equated Barbie’s body with my self-worth, and not even subliminally, I don’t think, I believe many girls and women do. And I believe ideas about one ideal for the female form are un-empowering and disenfranchising for girls and women. Barbie and women’s mags and celebrity culture are just three pieces of the bombardment of imagery that promotes a deadly ideal and contributes to a toxic culture. It’s sick and wrong and culturally- and (let’s be honest) self-inflicted and it’s killing us. I’m completely unsure how our gender will advance if we don’t eradicate these self-defeating phenomena. But that’s another post.
Hey, thanks, Mattel for making a girl with a tummy and thighs that exist in nature. Do more, though. Give money to politicians and non-profits that empower young girls and save women. And keep rolling out those body types. Show us someone petite and curvy, tall and big, straight and narrow, a woman with an a-cup and forty-inch ass (like meee!). Make more shades and textures. Have a field day with it.
I want us to see ourselves more clearly, and I know media and marketing are the divine influencers. Can we reach a point where Barbie’s body doesn’t matter beyond its role as a vehicle for those fabulous and outrageous outfits? Or where she’s about using her body to enjoy sex with Ken, and just wishes she were a little more flexible?