Tuesday, September 20, 2011

In the Image: Barbie, breasts, & butchery

This is the second of a series of posts on women, body image, and mental health.
You can read the first post here.


I would've loved to have had a daughter.

(In addition to, not instead of my son. I wouldn’t trade him for anything.)

But sometimes when friends tell me stories of shopping with their young daughters, trying to find clothes that are age-appropriate yet stylish, I’m kinda grateful I didn’t.

If I'd had a daughter, I think we might have butted heads on a few things related to wardrobe and image… beginning with my “no Barbies” rule.

(Yes, I had that rule. Way before I ever became a parent, I decided: no guns and no Barbies. Which is much easier when there's no Santa.)

Vintage Barbie: a whiter shade of fail
Years ago, I was shopping at Target, walking past the toy department — specifically, past that most pink of aisles — when I overheard an African American mom calmly explaining to her tiny daughter (who was three years old at the most) that they wouldn’t be purchasing the pale-skinned Barbies the little girl was requesting, “…because these don’t look like you.”

I wanted to stop and say, “Well, they don’t look like anyone, really… at least, not like anyone who hasn’t had some serious surgical alteration…”

Now, I respect and appreciate what that mother was telling her little girl by declining to buy her the pale, blonde dolls. She was saying that her daughter should have a doll that portrays a realistic image, that mirrors her own beauty, and that having a doll that does neither might set her up for self-image problems later, as she chases futilely after a standard of beauty she can never attain.



In Seeking Self-Esteem Through Surgery, the New York Times reports numbers published by the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.

The numbers are shocking.

In the 10-year period from 1997 to 2007:
  • The number of cosmetic surgical procedures performed annually on youths 18 or younger more than tripled, from 59,890 to 205,119
  • Among that same group, liposuctions nearly quadrupled, from 2,504 to 9,295
  • The number of breast augmentation surgeries increased nearly sixfold, from 1,326 to 7,882

Keep in mind, these numbers are just for surgeries performed on kids 18 and younger.

Why the sudden rise in popularity? For several years, articles have been appearing in various media claiming that "breast implants and liposuction are now bestowed by parents as graduation or birthday gifts" (Washington Post, 2004).

The Post article continues:
Psychologist Ann Kearney-Cooke, a visiting scholar at Columbia University who studies girls and body image, said the increase in cosmetic surgery among adolescents reflects a pernicious trend that pervades popular culture: the glorification of rail-thin, large-breasted women. It is, she notes, an unnatural body type rarely achievable without surgery.
Artist Chris Jordan depicted the Barbie/surgery connection in his 2008 piece entitled Barbie Dolls from his series Running the Numbers: An American Self Portrait. The caption tells us the photo "depicts 32,000 Barbies, equal to the number of elective breast augmentation surgeries performed monthly in the US in 2006."

Obviously, Barbie isn't the only source of women's self-image and self-acceptance issues, and cosmetic surgery isn't the only way our insecurities play out.

Unrealistic media images play a huge role as well, as does a culture obsessed with beauty, youth, and sexual availability. And advertising works by playing into those insecurities, making us believe the advertised product will bring us joy, love, and fulfillment.

Dr. Kearney-Cooke continues in the Post:
Kids... [are] bombarded by the media with these unrealistic images... When you're a teenage girl, there's this whole myth of transformation that's very powerful: namely that cosmetic surgery can transform your looks and your life. It's as though the question "Who am I?" has been replaced with "What image do I want to project?"
What to do?

  • As parents, we need solid advice for bringing up daughters in a way that honors them as people and reveals the cultural lies that a woman must meet a certain narrow standard of physical beauty in order to be valuable. (And we may need to start by becoming aware of how we've bought into those cultural lies ourselves.)
  • We need to talk to our sons about the hollowness of that standard, so that they don't place unrealistic expectations on the women in their lives.
  • As women, we need to work at really encouraging each other. We're good at complimenting each other's hair and admiring each other's outfits. But we need to support each other's strength, appreciate each other's intelligence, reinforce each other's wisdom — we need to teach each other that our value goes beyond our appearance.

Because we're worth it.



  1. Anonymous10:55 AM

    I'm not sure how I'd feel about Barbies if I had children. On one hand, what you said- awful for body image. Plus, On the other, I had a lot of fun with my Barbies and I think they were good for my imagination. They're cool because, unlike with video games, you just have a doll and you get to decide what it does. But there are probably better toys out there that can do the same thing.

    also, I really like your point about complimenting things other than clothes and looks. Great idea!

  2. Thanks for your comment, Sarah. I agree about dollplay and imagination, but you're right -- I think there are toys that aren't tied to the beauty-is-everything message. (And though Barbie's shape has changed over time, her measurements are still unattainable to most without surgical help.)

  3. Anonymous8:00 PM

    Just catching up with blog reading - barbies again, haha! When I was little, Barbie was becoming a doctor and an astronaut. And she was just a doll, not an entire multi-media enterprise. For me, that's the big deal - the ever-presence of the stuff. That you can't just buy a ball, it's either a Barbie ball, or a Transformers ball. It's hard to find neutral toys. I have no problem with boy/girl toys, but I do have a problem with the feeling of "all girls toys must be pink and have princess/diva on them and all boys toys must be blue and have some sort of weapon/skull on them."

  4. So true, Elizabeth. I have just as many issues with the aggressive images on boys' stuff.

    And it's not just the images -- but even the colors themselves being associated so early with genders.

    A few years ago, I met a young boy, an immigrant from an African country, who told me his favorite color was pink. I had to wonder how much teasing he endured from his peers...

  5. Anonymous4:34 PM

    I am about to go Christmas shopping for a group that includes two nieces and am yet again disgusted by the choices available for girls. Everything is pink or purple and is geared toward looks and/or clothing. I love clothes and shoes as much as the next girl, but come on! Can we have something that reflects real women? Please?? I got excited when I saw a commercial for a particular doll that included a mechanic in the line. However, excitement quickly turned to disappointment when I found the doll in the store and discovered it was the only MALE doll in the line. Would it have been beyond the realm of possibility to make the mechanic a girl? I'm in the military, I am a maintainer for the radar system of a specialized aircraft--I get dirty, I lift heavy things, I have test scores that only allow 10% of servicemembers to do my job, and I love every minutes of it! I am also fit, healthy, slim, and can clean up in a dress and heels with the best of them. Can I please have a toy that shows my nieces that? To be honest, I had Barbies as a child, but I had way more fun with my GI Joe and Star Wars action figures! Where's the Girl Power Action Squad figures--anyone, anyone?


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