"Normal Barbie" Won't Solve Your Body Image Woes


Yesterday, the world was abuzz with pre-Christmas gift-buying possibility: Lammily, the “normal Barbie doll” brought about by an art project in 2013 followed by a crowdfunding campaign that ran earlier in the year, finally went on sale.

Allegedly representative of the average 19-year-old (and yet, strangely white), Lammily is the brainchild of designer Nickolay Lamm, who wanted a doll that would “promote realistic beauty standards to children”. This was, as expected, heralded by the media as a giant leap for feminist-kind. I, on the other hand, was not so thrilled.

Let’s get one thing perfectly straight: If you're "promoting realistic beauty standards" to children YOU'RE STILL PROMOTING BEAUTY STANDARDS TO CHILDREN. You are still saying “the surface is what’s important”; you are still saying, to children of colour, disabled kids, or kids who are skinnier, rangier, taller, shorter or fatter than Lammily, “this is the ideal”.

You will never create a toy that is adequately representative of an “average” (though American Girl Doll have tried, you could argue), and it remains a curious obsession of a particularly well-meaning slice of (adult) society. Kids, as the old saying goes, will play with the box; insisting that children play only with “realistic”, “normal” or “educational” toys is, ultimately, about foisting our own adult ideologies onto children - rather like making toddlers wear “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like” t-shirts. 

The idea that everything young girls play with has to reflect their future reality is depressing in the extreme; it’s play as rehearsal, as conditioning. (And when was the last “He-Man and G.I. Joe are unrealistic role models for young boys” public outrage campaign?)

There has been much gnashing of teeth about, say, bright pink toy ovens and sinks imprinting a future of domestic servitude on little girls; insisting on fostering a future feminist mindset through “real” toys is, more or less, exactly the same, an irony apparently lost on those who praise Lammily’s arrival.  

The “Barbie gives girls eating disorders” tale is largely apocryphal. Am I necessarily pro-Barbie? No, but I do support toys being objects of fantasy for children. After all, those of us who had Barbies rarely played with them as the box or ad campaigns dictated; mine were mostly stunt people for short movies (and one of my best friend’s Barbies became a Ken).

In a shitfight earlier in the year, Mattel’s head Barbie designer Kim Culmone suggested that it was an adult issue to consider Barbie to be a body image role model: “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.”

Culmone is on the Barbie payroll, so it’s worth taking those statements with a grain of salt, but I thought of the comments when Lammily materialised yesterday: isn’t this “toy for kids” created solely because of some very adult idea about body image, “real beauty” and feminism? After all, a 2006 University of Sussex study about body image and fashion dolls could only settle on “may damage girls’ body image”; by that token, many things “may”.

Do some girls want to "look like Barbie"? Yes, but they also want to look like mermaids (or, in my case, Peter Venkman); it's about fantasy play.

So, back to Lammily: “I wanted to show that reality is cool,” Lamm told TIME. “And a lot of toys make kids go into fantasy, but why don’t they show real life is cool? It’s not perfect, but it’s really all we have. And that’s awesome.”

Putting aside the amusing notion of toys “making” kids “go into fantasy” (“YOU WILL PRETEND YOU ARE LIVING IN CASTLE GREYSKULL OR THE PUPPY GETS IT!!”), the concept of a “fashion doll” who comes with stickers - "Lammily Marks”! - that replicate stretch marks, tattoos and cellulite is bordering on self-parody. Is this a toy for children, or a Portlandia sketch? Make up your own mind by watching some indoctrinated private elementary school children “react to” Lammily:

Anyone reminded of this?

Make no mistake: Lammily is just another product.

This “what if Barbie were normal” gig is nothing new: you have likely, as have I, read the countless “studies” that tell us that, were Barbie “real”, she’d have to be quadrupedal because her feet are tiny, or that she has no room for a liver, or that she’d be 7’3”, or, or, or...

Likewise, Lammily is certainly not the first “real” Barbie; that movement began way back in the early ‘90s with the ‘Happy To Be Me’ doll.

The great irony in all of these projects is that Barbie herself beat everyone to the point (oh yes, I’ve read every Barbie ‘biography’ there is to read; this isn’t my first time at the rodeo), with the realistically articulated Dramatic New Living Barbie, released way back in 1970.

But then again, why let the truth get in the way of your righteous capitalist art project, huh?


- originally published on TheVine, 2014