For years, Barbie has been the go-to example of the ways our culture teaches girls to strive toward unrealistic beauty standards. Well, the brand's VP of design has finally responded to the critics. She counters that the realism isn't the point—the doll's design is mostly about making tiny clothes that actually fit.
Fast Company visited Mattel recently and sat down with Kim Culmone, who defends Barbie's proportions as a practical decision: "Barbie's body was never designed to be realistic. She was designed for girls to easily dress and undress," she said, explaining:
So to get the clean lines of fashion at Barbie's scale, you have to use totally unrealistic proportions?
You do! Because if you're going to take a fabric that's made for us, and turn a seam for a cuff or on the body, her body has to be able to accommodate how the clothes will fit her.
Having spent years working rubber dolls into garish zebra-stripe minidresses, I'm skeptical that the tiny waist and improbably large tits are helpful, much less necessary. Plus, the ability to make properly fitting doll clothes shouldn't outweigh the possible impact on girls. But Ms. Culmone doesn't think kids actually compare themselves to Barbie:
Girls view the world completely differently than grown-ups do. They don't come at it with the same angles and baggage and all that stuff that we do. Clearly, the influences for girls on those types of issues, whether it's body image or anything else, it's proven*, it's peers, moms, parents, it's their social circles.
When they're playing, they're playing. It's a princess-fairy-fashionista-doctor-astronaut, and that's all one girl. She's taking her Corvette to the moon, and her spaceship to the grocery store. that is literally how girls play.
Obviously, it's not just Barbie teaching girls to be preoccupied with their appearance. And maybe in a perfect world, you could hand a five-year-old a Barbie and she'd understand she's holding a caricature, no more a real-world objective than Minnie Mouse. But the evidence suggests that the doll, with her idealized figure, sends all the wrong signals.
Culmone's best argument is that Barbie's been around for more than 50 years, and they want to keep the doll consistent enough that moms can hand their own dolls and accessories down to their daughters. As someone who grew up playing with her mom's exquisite mid-60s doll clothes (made by my great-grandmother!), I'm sympathetic. But sometimes heirlooms aren't worth the accompanying baggage.
And it seems parents have caught on—Barbie sales have hit the skids over the last year. If only there were alternatives beyond Monster High dolls.
Photo via Getty