Go figure that a future eating disorder dietitian (me) grew up playing with Barbie dolls and that her daughter played with them too!
I just found out that Barbie and I are the same age! She was unveiled by Mattel on March 9, 1959, which makes her 60 years old. She’s not even middle-aged anymore! For almost half a century, these dolls have come under fire by critics who argue that Barbie’s unrealistic body shape and image promotes anorexia and other eating disorders. Her proportions are absurd, and even though, most recently, Mattel has released a “curvy” Barbie, there is still much criticism.
What do you suppose Barbie would look like today? How might she have aged?
In doing some research about this iconic doll, I found out some saucy information about Barbie. Did you know that Barbie was really designed based on a “naughty” doll from Germany named Bild Lilli? Lilli had initially been a cartoon character in a German publication which was feisty and flirtatious. She was considered a high-end call girl. Eventually, she was turned into a plastic doll for an adult gag gift but was discovered by young girls and was rebranded into a real doll complete with clothing, housing, etc.
Ruth Handler, the wife of a Mattel executive, discovered Lilli while she was abroad with her 15 year-old daughter, Barbara. She was enthralled with Lilli, and Ruth Handler bought three Lilli dolls home, which became the prototype for Barbie, named after Barbara.
Did Barbie affect our nation’s idea of what a female should look like? And what does any of this have to do with body image?
The fact is, Barbie was developed to be 1/6th of a scale model of a real person. Her original proportions were a 39″ bust, an 18″ waist, 33″ hips, and a size 3 shoe. She would have been 5’9″ tall. These proportions are ridiculous and unrealistic images of what a real woman could ever look like. In fact, Barbie probably would have had an eating disorder! With those proportions, her body weight would have been way too low to menstruate.
One of the more shocking aspects of Barbie’s history is about a doll that I am pretty sure I played with as a kid! Her name was Slumber Party Barbie, and she came out in 1965. I was 7 years old at the time and though no one even talked about it, she came equipped with a scale (set to a meager number) and a diet book that said, “How to Lose Weight – Don’t Eat!” She wore pink satin pajamas with a robe and slippers and a mirror.
So what do you think would have happened to Barbie as she aged? What would middle-aged Barbie look like?
If Barbie were a real person, her current body shape would really depend on what happened to her throughout the years. Would Barbie have followed the instructions not to eat and weighed herself all the time on her pink bathroom scale?
Here are some facts we do know:
- Barbie must have been weight suppressed. For Barbie to maintain her slender proportions, she would have had to be on a strict diet.
- She may well have had an eating disorder. If so, would she have recovered? What do YOU think?
I guess that Barbie would have spent the past 40 plus years yo-yo dieting – meaning she would have had a hard time maintaining her strict regimen of “not eating” to retain her small body. She very likely would have binged as soon as she had enough of the diet. Diet-binge – diet-binge and so on. She would have internalized the diet culture message that had become normalized during her (and my) lifetime. Barbie would most likely be in a larger body now, which would have been protective against her starvation diets. Because that’s what happens to our bodies when we suppress our weight. Barbie would have spent a lifetime dealing with guilt and shame for not being able to maintain her svelte physique.
The evolution of diets and the corresponding growth of diet culture parallel Barbie’s development.
The original Weight Watchers meetings, held in private homes in New York City, were started by a large (okay – fat!) woman named Jean Nidetch. This was in 1963. In 1964, diet sodas became the rage and I have very distinct memories of drinking Tab all through high school. At some point, they were pulled from the shelves due to the fear that the artificial sweetener cyclamate, caused bladder cancer in lab rats.
While I think of myself as a young child growing up with Barbies and diet culture, it makes me also consider how “normalized” diet culture felt. I remember my mother always being on a “diet.” Of course, those were the times.
I just had to verify this with my mom, who grew up amid diet culture. She told me that she didn’t diet until high school (in 1942) and that “everyone” she knew was on a diet. She told me that she had appointments with the original Dr. Atkins and Dr. Stillman, that she and my aunt went to other various diet doctors to get “diet pills” and that she had been on the Cabbage Soup Diet, the Grapefruit Diet, and my personal fave, Ayds diet candies that supposedly suppressed your appetite. They were delicious – like tootsie rolls and I have serious memories of me and my brother taking these when we were teens.
She told me that she was warned not to “gain too much weight” while she was pregnant with me, and she was always praised for keeping her body small – by family, friends, and doctors.
Reflecting now on what I went through my whole life with diets and body image and understanding these “normalized” culturized ideals around body weight, I know why it is so difficult to let go of the pursuit of weight loss.
But with work, we can reclaim our bodies and start to take care of them without dieting. This is where the Health at Every Size® approach comes in.