“I can be anything, from a rock star to a race-car driver, and so can you!”, squeals Barbie as I visit her cyber walk-in-wardrobe. Unfortunately, it would seem that Barbie’s version of the American dream extends only to those who weigh 110lbs (7.9 stone) or less. If Barbie were a human woman, she would stand tall at 5 feet 9 inches, rendering her size-3 feet quite inadequate for balance – especially when taking her F-cup breasts into consideration. When the figures are laid bare, it seems clear that Barbie’s belongs to a fantasy world. But the truth is that Barbie is very much a part of the real world too, and she symbolises generations of women striving to be ‘beautiful’.
Courtney E Martin, author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters writes, “our bodies work on their own success/failure scale. We can work 4 years to get a degree, but can be failures in an instant, once we step onto scales.” Such a sentiment will not be a surprise to most Western women who will have felt the inescapable pressure to be smoother, flatter, huskier, and poutier, and then the inevitable disappointment when their bodies don’t comply. From the corsets of times past which made fainting a hobby, to the Monolo pinkie toe amputations of today, women have a long history of enduring pain to be ‘beautiful’, and society has a long history of encouraging that. It is within this framework, where women are willing to lose dangerous amounts of weight and actual body parts in order to be validated as ‘beautiful’ that the potential danger of a Barbie doll is nurtured.
In 1965, 6 years after Barbie was born, Mattel released ‘Sleepy Time Gal Barbie’ who was decked out in pink pajamas and eager for slumber party fun. Her sleep-over accessories consisted of scales pegged to 110lbs and a dieting handbook with one page of advice that read, “don’t eat.” In the politically correct age of baa baa rainbow sheep we may feel safe to assume that modern products will not so diligently demonstrate the double standards of real life directly to vulnerable children. But we’d be wrong in that assumption.
Finding examples is not difficult. Bratz, our favourite ethnically diverse and arousing dolls seem to win but the Bratz offshoot dolls, ‘Babyz’, take the trend of sexualising pre-pubescent females to a whole new level by presenting actual baby versions of the dolls in a nappy, bra and make-up, with bottles of milk dangling from their necks and swinging by their thighs. Meanwhile, the hair removing product, ‘Nair’ has released ‘Nair Pretty’ with a target market of 10-15 year olds. My personal favourite find (one of those which goes into life’s ‘only in America’ category) is a pair of pink children size knickers sold at Walmart which ask “who needs credit cards..?” across the infant vagina. Suddenly Barbie’s quite an attractive prospect in more ways than one!
Where does all of this fit into an era that boasts of women’s liberation – a time that some even have the nerve to refer to as ‘post-feminist’? One thing we do know is that with the increase of women fulfilling roles of power and influence, has come an increase in women ready to use that power to keep other women and girls enslaved in timeless beauty rituals. In 2006 Ariel Levy wrote ‘Female Chauvinist Pigs’, to draw attention specifically to women’s roles in perpetuating this beauty myth. That’s why when Kate Moss said “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” she was not simply irresponsible, she showed herself to be a queen pig.
Barbie celebrated her 50th birthday in 2009 (I know, she’s aged well) and as part of the celebrations 500 dolls were made to represent different global cultures and auctioned at Sotheby’s to raise money for Save the Children. Among the dolls was one in a hijab and trousers and another in a vermilion green burqa. This decision prompted a predictable onslaught of anti-Islamic rhetoric, feminist outrage with the prestigious New York State National Organisation of Women (NOW) stating, “women must be able to make their own choices… but the burqa is more than a choice. Women are forced to wear the burqa or risk being murdered… selling a doll that is clearly wearing a symbol of violence is not acceptable.” However, calling for an unequivocal ban on the doll misses an important point (just as when Saudi Arabia outlawed the sale of Barbies in 2003). For the hundreds of women who are being hidden and abused under ‘Islamic’ dictatorship every day, there is a woman who is wearing her burqa on Oxford Street. For every feminist who believes that modest dress restrictions can be a personal choice but that they place a burden on some women to cover up rather than men to avert their gaze, there is a feminist who feels empowered by Islam and freedom in her modesty. Just how feminist is it to pacify her?
I was raised by a woman who was empowered by a non-alcoholic cocktail of both feminism and Islam. It’s not as simple as the donning of a hijab or the outlawing of Barbie dolls (in fact my mother doesn’t feel it necessary to cover her head to be modest, and I had my fair share of Barbies). The day I saw my mum stop a stranger at the market and complement her weave was formative in teaching me that through loving my own body I need never begrudge another woman’s beauty and in fact I ought to celebrate it.
I am no Barbie. My body is big enough to house all of my vital organs, I like it when my outfits clash and when I say I’m having a ‘bad hair day’ I am usually referring to my moustache. Unless my genes skip a generation, I don’t think my future daughter will resemble a Barbie either. Yet, would I buy her one if she asked? Absolutely. Whether she chooses one in a bikini or a burqa, it will probably end up wrapped in tin foil on a space mission, or if my child takes after me, naked and bald in the microwave. Regardless of what inspires women to fight against what society expects of them, be it religion, politics, literature or a friendship, it’s the lifestyle changes real women stick by which ultimately influence our daughters – not plastic dolls. Empowering girls to love their bodies is not a child’s play.