I feel for Barbie the way I would Leon Trotsky or a Salem “witch,” if either were standing before me. She’s a scapegoat for the problems that adults like myself refuse to admit we continue to cause when it comes to the contentious issue of poor body image in young girls and women.
I feel it’s important to be clear and upfront about this: I don’t hate Barbie. I feel about her the same way I did the plastic bag my grocer handed me this morning, which is to say, not a whole lot.
Yet I find myself growing increasingly angry when I continue to read glowing reports about how Mattel has introduced three new Barbie body types: “tall,” “curvy” and “petite.” Its launch also includes Barbies with a range of different skin tones, 24 new hairstyles and 22 different eye colors.
Hurray for diversity! Hurray for evolution! Hurray for Mattel, a savvy company trying to make up for a 14 percent fall in sales in its most recent reported quarter!
But hurray for the beginning of the end to eating disorders and disordered eating that are affecting younger and younger girls? There’s where you’ve lost me.
I lived within the hellish vortex of anorexia from ages 13 until about 21, though the desire to turn to disordered eating, like it’s the only old pal who gets you, never truly goes away. During those years I subsisted on rice cakes and apples, smeared the oily dinners my mom left on plates for me before going to work to make it look like I ate before throwing whole meals down the sewer (less risky than a temperamental toilet). I became adept at lying, to myself and to the world, and would black out on a regular basis — the last time was on a crowded train in Manhattan on my way to school. An older woman pulled me to a bench and, with blue-gray eyes, cored me like an apple before telling me, “A day will come when someone won’t help you” — words that make me wish I could find her today and throw myself down at her feet in gratitude.
The thing is, I owned one Barbie my entire life — the Southern-est belle of them all, Peaches N Cream Barbie — and never asked to own more. Two weeks after my aunt gifted me the lovely Peaches, I took sewing scissors to her flaxen mane and chiffon gown because I wanted to make her more stylish. Proving to myself at age 7 that I was most certainly not the next Giorgio Armani, I cast poor Peaches, who now looked like a raggamuffin, aside and never thought about her again.
Not once — not for a split second — did I consider Barbie’s body or the impact it had on me. Because I don’t believe it caused my eating disorder or played the slightest role years later, when I first discovered I was pretty damn talented at losing weight.
It isn’t a coincidence that I became consumed with toying with my hunger signals and exercising at midnight around the same age my parents got separated and I became privy to a lot of personal, messed-up, grown-up information I wasn’t yet equipped to handle. Therapists would later tell me, time and time again, that I felt out of control and that the realization that I could control food, exercise and how I shaped my body was the greatest power kick a young woman could experience in our modern age.
But young girls don’t starve themselves because Barbie tells them to. They starve themselves because they’re dealing with psychological issues they can’t work out on their own. They continue to starve themselves because they are then praised for self-deprivation — and don’t think for a second nasty, jealous comments by other women aren’t perceived as the highest form of flattery. At my lowest weight — 99 pounds at 5 feet 7 inches — I was approached by two modeling agents in one day while walking around London so light-headed I could see clouds in front of my eyes. I went back to my apartment that night, ate a cup of fat-free Müller yogurt for dinner and cried in my bed because I was terrified my heart was beating too fast and I had gone too far this time. Still, the modeling agents. Still, I had won that day.
When I look at my 4-year-old daughter playing with her Barbie dolls — and her Lammily dolls, which she received for Christmas and loves just as much — I don’t worry that they’ll contribute to a poor body image. I worry that the media’s insane focus on celebrity postpartum weight loss will stick in her mind. I worry that she’ll catch me one day staring at my thighs in the mirror with a disapproving look. I worry that adults are being dishonest by throwing “curvy” dolls at her instead of taking a hard look at how much we need to change the way we portray, talk about and think about women’s bodies before we praise Barbie, which is nothing more than a reflection of society.
I don’t think new Barbies are a bad thing. But let’s keep this in perspective. Mattel’s job is to turn a profit, not single-handedly change the way society views women’s bodies. Let’s not treat curvy Barbies like a solution to very real problems we continue to perpetuate — or else we’ll lose sight of the fact that we owe our daughters a lot more.
It doesn’t matter how many transformations you make to Barbie — she isn’t going to prevent eating disorders or poor body image, because that will only be achieved when we change ourselves.