When I was growing up, my mother never let me have Barbies. Later, she explained that she hadn’t wanted to give me a doll that modeled such an absurdly unattainable version of beauty. It was one way for her to shield me, however imperfectly, from the constant injunctions to be thin that would batter me throughout my life. At the time, I didn’t understand how refusing to give me one doll would help me love my body in the face of a constant cultural onslaught. When I played with Barbies at my friends’ houses, I wondered why my mother was so opposed to what seemed like a harmless toy.
The life-size Barbie built by Galia Slayen, a student at Hamilton College, vindicates my mother completely. Slayen first built her version of Barbie out of wood, chicken wire and papier-mache when she was in high school. The figure of a 6 foot tall woman with a 39″ bust, 18″ waist and 33″ hips is terrifyingly grotesque – her head is dwarfed by her breasts and hips, and between her tiny waist and stick-thin arms, it looks like it would be an easy task to snap Barbie in half. Most poignantly, she is dressed in a size 00 skirt, left over from Slayen’s year-long struggle with anorexia.
“I had fond times with my Barbie, and I admired her perfect blonde locks and slim figure,” Slayen explained in a piece for Huffington Post earlier this week. “Barbie represented beauty, perfection and the ideal for young girls around the world. At least, as a seven-year-old, that is what she was to me.”
With this horrifying reminder of what Barbie represents, Slayen was trying to start a conversation about eating disorders. Although, as she admits, the proportions are not completely accurate, it still dramatically calls attention to the distorted version of the female body that girls have been playing with for decades.
“I’m not blaming Barbie [for my illness] — she’s one small factor, an environmental factor,” Slayen said. But, using statistics at the end of her Huffington Post piece, she points out just how wide Barbie’s cultural reach is. According to Slayen, there are two Barbie dolls sold every second, and the target demographic are girls aged 3-12. These are the girls who learn, like Slayen, to idolize a female body that would, on a real woman, exhibit malnourishment and ill health. As Slayen points out, “At 5’9″ tall and weighing 110 lbs, Barbie would have a BMI of 16.24 and fit the weight criteria for anorexia. She likely would not menstruate.”
Barbie’s manufacturer, Mattel, defended themselves by saying that Barbie “was never modeled on the proportions of a real person.” But that doesn’t mean that girls don’t look at their Barbies and see a version of a woman – without realizing that it’s both unhealthy and unattainable.
Looking at the pictures of Slayen with her life-size Barbie, I understand why my mother didn’t want me to have these dolls. And although she couldn’t shield me from Barbie’s influence entirely, I’m proud that she had the strength of conviction to protect me from such a toxic, distorted plaything.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.