The makers of Barbie are going all out with their new curvier prototype, but given the influence of social media it may not be enough to counteract the damage to body image

 

My feverish Barbie-enthusiast phase still lives on vividly in my memory: the intimate safety of my room, the corny, Hungarian love song on its umpteenth replay in the background and me acting out the Barbie and Ken dancing-and-kissing-at-the-final-chorus scene over and over again. I would be lying if I claimed that my hopeless romantic childhood self is fully mature by now. However — though she still cannot stand or hold anything in her hands on her own — Barbie herself has undoubtedly matured a lot. The company has decided to add new, curvier dolls to their collection and promote a healthier and more authentic body image for future generations.

When I was younger, the concept of ‘diverse figures’ didn’t even register with me. My idea of the ‘normal body’ was based on its representation in the media and in movies: thinness. I notice it to this day when watching something I’ve last seen when I was 10, how absurdly black-and-white my perception of the female figure was; someone seemed either normal (skinny) or chubby (everything not perfectly skinny). I entered adolescence with the idea that the ‘Barbie shape’ was the average. Needless to say, I had my issues.

The content we are exposed to throughout childhood has a crucial role in shaping our long-term, entrenched perceptions. If I would’ve seen more curvy women on TV or had dolls with fuller figures, my cognitive idea of what’s ‘standard’ would probably have been different. I am for this reason, very supportive of the idea that physical diversity should be made part of the reality that children grow up in. The recent decision by the makers of Barbie is a significant leap forward in supporting future generations to be more acceptant of themselves and others. However, I also think it’s important to highlight the series of new questions this innovation raises.

Firstly, Barbie’s efforts are in vain, unless the media, which at this age serves as children’s primary window into the ‘real world’, agrees to join her ranks in showcasing a wider range of body types. Just think of the Disney princesses! Or Disney’s television equivalent, the Disney Channel (the ‘sitcom-factory’, very popular among teenagers as well). Think of any animated female character in movies or in television! All the ‘pretty’ female leads have slim figures. But is that truly what an average teenager looks like? Is that what we want teenagers to think they should look like?

Social media is similarly dominated by representations of the ‘perfect appearance’, which is especially relevant given that nowadays youngsters are sucked into the virtual world of apparent perfection from an increasingly earlier age. On platforms such as YouTube or Instagram, young girls with beautiful bodies and flawless skin post pictures and spread invaluable wisdom on their fashion choices and eating habits, making it all seem so effortless and natural.

But it isn’t — this world isn’t real. Former Australian Instagram and YouTube celebrity, Essena O’Neil, whose face was all over the internet a couple of months ago, emphasized this as the reason why she quit the world of social media for good — because it gives no authentic representation of reality and can be very harmful to an impressionable, young audience.

Another point to consider is that we are letting a sensitive and controversial issue such as this trickle down to people at such a young age. Moreover, the information does not come from somebody responsibly educating children on ideals, it comes indirectly through their source of entertainment, self-expression and self-discovery. The ideas received through social media permeate young people’s consciousness, arguably leaving a deeper imprint than a parental or pedagogical monologue would.

In general, it is always easier when the available range of choices is narrower. But as our society develops towards becoming more liberal and towards a seemingly limitless range of options and possibilities, we have to be aware of our responsibility increasing with this freedom. The fact that children now have more Barbie doll choices means there is greater responsibility in that choice and its consequences. The moment a 7-year-old picks a doll, they pick a stance, at least a future one.

How to determine healthy limits in this newly-entered domain is an important question as well. Let’s not forget that the Curvy Barbie is still not a Chubby Barbie. Nor is she the I Have Multiple Problem Areas Not Just A Large And Shapely Butt Barbie. Just because she now possesses the utmost fashionable bottom size of Kim Kardashian, it doesn’t make her the paradigm representative of all non-mainstream physical beauty.  If we really are to endorse diversity in body types for Barbie dolls, should we also demand dolls with a bigger stomach? Flabby Arms? Bigger legs? Bigger everything?

And here comes the final, uncomfortable question: in our present reality, walking down the Barbie isle in a store, will a 7-year-old actually choose the curvy Barbie over her skinnier girlfriends? And, can children, basing their notions of beauty on media sources they are exposed to, regard these new dolls as being equally beautiful? Or is the curvy Barbie destined to remain either on the shelf, or in the role of that failed Christmas gift, or simply become the ‘mean doll’ or ‘the loser doll’ forever?

Breaking boundaries can be a good thing — in this case I believe it certainly is. But only if increased freedom of choice is handled wisely, starting with educating young children as soon as possible when it comes to things like choosing which Barbie doll to grab from the shelf.