Leave Barbie Alone! She's Not the Skinniest Doll on the Block

What Women Really Think
Feb. 5 2014 2:02 PM

Leave Barbie Alone! She's Not the Skinniest Doll on the Block

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Svelte as ever.

Photo by Bas Czerwinski/AFP/Getty Images

On Monday, Fast Company’s Co.Design interviewed Kim Culmone, vice president of design for Barbie, about why Mattel maintains Barbie’s impossible figure in light of decades of criticism that her dimensions set extreme physical expectations for young girls. (If Barbie were a real girl, her stomach could not accommodate her full liver, her thin ankles and tiny feet would force her to crawl on all fours, and her head would be unsupportable by her spindly neck.) “Barbie’s body was never designed to be realistic,” Culmone responded. “She was designed for girls to easily dress and undress. … Primarily it’s for function for the little girl, for real life fabrics to be able to be turned and sewn, and have the outfit still fall properly on her body.”

Amanda Hess Amanda Hess

Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer. 

It’s true: As a woman with a normal human body, it’s impossible to find astronaut crop tops in my size. “There’s also the issue of heritage,” Culmone continued. “This is a 55-year-old brand where moms are handing clothes down to their daughters, and so keeping the integrity of that is really important.” If Barbie fattened up, millions of girls around the world would have to buy all-new wardrobes for their dolls, and that would be … I don’t know. Lucrative?

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I wonder if the real reason Mattel isn’t interested in giving Barbie some breathing room is that she is still the world’s number-one selling doll, and many parents and kids will keep buying endless iterations of her just the way she is. The market for meatier Barbies is less clear. In fact, Mattel has given Barbie a full-body makeover before, heritage be damned: In 1997, the company downgraded Barbie’s cup size, filled out her waist a smidge, and slimmed her hips, which brought her in line with the prepubescent fashion ideal of the '90s, but not any closer to realistic human dimensions.

And Mattel hasn’t shown much interest in molding healthier bodies for its non-Barbie dolls, either. In 2010, Mattel launched Monster High, a new line of gothy fashion dolls modeled after the fictional teenage daughters of various horror monsters and mythical beasts. These dolls are obviously awesome. But they are also impossibly thin. Even the werewolf one. And there’s no “issue of heritage” to fall back on here. Mattel created a fantasy world, and it chose to make it one where teen girls hobble around on pairs of disjointed twigs.

Perhaps our endless scrutiny of Barbie’s body is a bit misguided, when there are so many other dolls out there with similar proportional issues. Take a look at Clawdeen Wolf’s thigh gap—you could drive a Thomas the Tank engine through there—and unrealistic figures appear to be an industry-wide problem. I took the dimensions of four popular girls’ dolls from a collection of fan measurements, then multiplied them by six—the standard playscale used to dream up Barbie’s real-life measurements—to see how the dolls measure up.

Barbie

Height: 11.5 inches
Bust: 5 inches
Waist: 3.5 inches

If Barbie became human and was cast in a sequel to the 2000 Lindsay Lohan-Tyra Banks made-for-TV vehicle Life Size, she would stand 5’9” tall and have a 21-inch waist and a 30-inch bust. The average American woman's waist measures 37.5 inches around.

Monster High

Height: 10.5 inches
Bust: 2.75 inches
Waist: 2 inches

If monsters horrifyingly came to life, then settled down with each other to raise teenage daughters, those girls would stand 5’3” tall and have 16.5-inch busts and 12-inch waists.

Bratz

Height: 10 inches
Waist: 2.5 inches
Bust: 3.5 inches

If Yasmin and Sasha were sassing up your local high school, what with their pouty lips and their midriff-baring tops, they would stand 5 feet tall and have 21-inch busts and 15-inch waists. 

American Girl

Height: 18 inches
Bust: 11.25 inches
Waist: 11 inches

For the American Girl dolls, which are designed to look like girls and not teenagers or adult women, I multiplied the dimensions by 3.5 to put the girls in the 4-foot range. If American Girl dolls came to life to help their Swedish-immigrant family on the farm or miraculously escape American slavery, they would stand 4’6” tall and have 33.75” busts and 33” waists. Good for them!

So why all the focus on Barbie? I suspect it’s because, while Monster High dolls come and Bratz dolls go, Barbies appear to be here for the long haul. We can hope that the next fad in dolls is more proportionate, but Barbie is not going to just waste away. Another clue as to why Barbie inspires so much ire may lie in her pretty little head. Monster High and Bratz are both designed to have absurdly large heads. That doesn’t excuse their teensy waists and tiny arms, but it does make it easier to claim that they aren’t actually supposed to look human. Meanwhile, Barbie was specifically designed to look like a grown-up. Her waist is impossible and her ankles are frail, but her head is only slightly larger than a real woman’s would be. When girls look at Barbie's face and a recognizably human woman stares back, it's a lot harder to avoid making comparisons from the neck down.

Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer. 

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