KELLY WILLIAMS discusses how Barbie has influenced beauty standards and expectations, particularly for young girls and women within society.
Barbie is a doll, a toy, but since 1959 she has also been the original ‘influencer’ for young girls. Having grown into a global phenomenon, Barbie is recognised worldwide and has taken on the role of ‘influencer’ through pushing particular ideals upon those who admire her. Her tiny waistline, long slender legs and bright blonde hair are all part of her appeal, enticing consumers to replicate the doll’s seemingly perfect - though unachievable, image. Barbie’s manufacturer, Mattel, have been criticised for marketing a doll unrepresentative of ‘the real woman’ (Hannah, 2017), conditioning young girls to believe that if they don’t mirror Barbie’s appearance, then they lack worth and beauty.
It was only in 2016 that Mattel released dolls with different body types and skin tones (Gemma, 2019), meaning prior to this, the ‘ideal’ doll was not relatable to the entire population; she could be seen as oppressive rather than uplifting and inspiring to young girls. American writer Sandra Cisneros recognised Barbie’s repressive potential, and taking to pen and paper in 1991, she constructed the short story ‘Barbie-Q’, exposing and elaborating on the pressures that the doll instils within their targeted consumers.
I was only introduced to ‘Barbie-Q’ in March during a university module - props to Graham Atkin - yet the story instantly resonated with me. As a young woman, I understand the influence Barbie has on perspectives of body image and beauty etc., and though I reached for Bratz over Barbie, the latter doll’s image was consistently promoted during my upbringing. Cisneros’ story centres on our young and nameless, female narrator, and her close friend; both of whom are conveniently infatuated with Barbie.
They relish in dressing up their dolls, the only thing able to distinguish identity in the otherwise identical dolls; ‘striped swimsuit, stilettos, sunglasses, and gold hoop earrings.’ Yet the two girls understand that clothing is a luxury, exposing their own impoverished positions as they make do with what they have, designing dresses out of socks and acknowledging it’s ‘all we can afford’. Cisneros comments on commercialism and consumer culture, suggesting that regardless of societal position, as a young girl, it’s inevitable that you’ll become enmeshed within materialistic desires.
Barbie projects luxury, encouraging consumers to purchase more and more clothing; there’s always new accessories to buy, and subtly conditioning within the young girls that appearance is ultimately linked to consumerism: buy more to look better.
Not only do the girls desire to purchase more clothing for their Barbies, but they also reveal the heteronormative beliefs that Barbie proposes, conjuring a Ken for their dolls’ romantic desires, though he is invisible due to lacking the funds to buy him. Arguing over Ken’s attention, ‘the two Barbies fight’, reflecting how girls are raised to view each other as competitors for male attention, yet Ken remains unblamed; is it not him who plays the two girls against one another through entertaining both Barbies? Though the playing is innocent, marked by the narrator’s childish insult ‘stinky’, Barbies’ embedding of rivalry between the girls is more harmful than it appears. Their game mirrors reality, portraying men as blameless whilst women fight amongst themselves rather than confronting the route of their problem: the man.
Fortunately, the girls are able to exceed their financial limitations, falling upon numerous Barbies at their local flea market. They find Midge, Skipper, a real Ken, Alan, Francie and many others. Their luck is thanks to a toy warehouse burning down, leaving the dolls ‘damaged with water and smelling of smoke’, but this doesn’t dampen the girls’ excitement, rather they have a ‘so what’ attitude towards the condition of their dolls. The destroyed factory is metaphorical of the cost of perfection, epitomising that attaining the dolls’ ideal image is detrimental and will only result in destruction.
Their damage demonstrates the reality that even Barbie, our ‘influencer,’ is not perfect. Francie has a ‘left foot that’s melted a little’, but this is not an issue, it can be covered with clothing: ‘so long as you don’t lift her dress, right?—who’s to know.’ Covering Francie’s deformity is a celebration and acceptance of imperfection, but also establishes that the girls understand that defects must be hidden; they alter their dolls to fit in, conforming to Barbies’ ideal presentation and the suggestion that if one is flawed, they cannot show it.
‘Barbie-Q’ delivers an important message regarding Barbie’s damaging influence, though Cisneros does so in a manner that utilises a child-like perspective, meaning the reader must delve deeper to uncover her hidden warnings. She presents Barbie as a tool that contributes to performative gender, targeting young girls specifically and confining them within a mindset that is focused on consumerism and appearance. Remaining a popular figure within today’s society, Barbie’s continuous relevance indicates that despite progress being made with body positivity and appearance, the pressure remains to conform with an ideal image.
Written by Kelly Williams