It’s not the out-of-touch statements Barbie’s lead designer Kimberly Culmone recently made to Fast Company Design (“Barbie’s body was never designed to be realistic. She was designed for girls to easily dress and undress” was just the tip of the iceberg) that have kept the bombshell out of my daughter’s toy box for the past four years. And it’s not because I don’t believe in my own ability to nurture her self-confidence at home. I allow princesses and high heels, and even a makeup kit my husband brought home one day against my better judgement. I’m not against fashion and beauty and dress-up and fantasy in my four-year-old daughter’s play, but I am against Barbie.
Meet Bild Lilli. The inspiration for Barbie, Lilli was a German doll based on a popular comic strip about a Depression-era woman about town in search of the wealthiest suitor. Or y’know … a gold digger. With advertising tag lines like, “Whether more or less naked, Lilli is always discreet” and a line of negligees and other goodies to go with her, Lilli was marketed towards adult men. Long before she graced children’s birthday celebrations, the doll was a common bachelor party gift. It wasn’t until Barbie Doll creator Ruth Handler spotted a Lilli doll on a trip abroad that she brought a few home. She thought her daughter Barbara (and other girls her age) might like to play with a doll modeled after a mature female body as a means of “practicing for adulthood.”
That’s always how I’ve seen Barbie, too — to this day, she’s notably one of the only dolls marketed to young girls and modeled after an adult woman. My four-year-old doesn’t really want to pretend to be a grown-up yet — that’s still a really unsavory idea to her — so, apart from the occasional run-in with Barbie at my mother-in-law’s house, my aversion to the doll hasn’t been a real issue yet. But we’ve had our moments with Barbie — the Life in the Dream House show popping up on Netflix, or a birthday gift she spotted before I did. Also, do they all come with clear heels now? What is with the clear heels?!. My husband rolls his eyes as my protests, my mother-in-law groans, but I can’t help but think that if this grown-up-looking doll is to be my little girl’s means of practicing for adulthood, exactly what kind of adulthood is it that I want her to be practicing for?
I don’t particularly want to raise a “clothes hanger,” as lead designer Kimberly Culmone has referred to her current design. I don’t think I’m super-interested in raising a Bild Lilli whose sole ambition in life is to land the wealthiest husband. And I’m definitely not aiming to raise a daughter who thinks being a grown-up means distorting her body to fit mid-century male ideals the point that she would fall over if she tried to stand up. (If we’re being literal. Which I obviously am.)
My real beef with Barbie is that she takes a lot of the imagination out of grown-up play and replaces it with a sex-doll-inspired, appearance-centric cesspool of ideas to fill the minds of little girls. While Handler kept the original proportions of the sexy Bild Lilli, she reportedly had designers remove a good amount of her makeup in her transition to children’s toy. Under Culmone’s reign, Barbie has become so gratuitously painted up that graphic artists have taken to rendering her with a make-under. Filling little girl’s toy chests with mini-skirts and stripper heels is sending a clear and pointed message about how women dress up, regardless of what kind of role models they have around them.
In the Fast Company Design piece, author Mark Wilson writes:
“Barbie’s designers were anything but the Stepfordian dictatorship seeking to deliberately crush a young girl’s body image as critics may assume. Like all of the designers I met at Mattel, they were nice, enthusiastic people who wanted to make kids happy and worked hard to do so–which made it particularly difficult to pull aside Kim Culmone, vice president of design for Barbie, after her tour and ask the dark question looming inside so many of us…”
I’d never doubt that the designers behind Barbie were anything but lovely, enthusiastic people. But what Wilson seems to miss in his interview with Culmone is that wanting to make kids happy isn’t enough — in order to properly serve the children Mattel counts on as its customer base, they need to understand them and the implications their product has on their impressionable minds — and Culmone seems to lack the willingness to seek out sources that don’t say what she wants them to. Again, from the Fast Company Design piece:
“[Wilson:] You don’t think there’s a body comparison going on when you’re a girl?
[Culmone:] I don’t. 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.”
It’s proven, in fact, that Barbie’s unhealthy and unattainable body type can and does contribute to body-perception issues in young girls. The refusal on the part of the Barbie team to acknowledge research while peddling a product that they claim is meant to inspire is exactly why my daughter doesn’t have any Barbie dolls in her toy box. Because while Dr. Barbie is great in theory, my OB has all her ribs intact and wears clothes under her white coat. I’m just saying.