A quick redesign at the Barbie factory will do little to solve the problem of self-esteem
Published 30/01/2016 | 02:30
'Yes, but which Barbie is the hottest?' He was half-joking, but the colleague who took one look at Mattel's three new-look dolls - the tall one, the petite one and the curvy one - was simply asking the question that the iconic American toy has always demanded we ask of her.
With her coiffed, swishy hair, her huge, beseeching eyes, her minuscule waist and sassy posture, Barbie's job has always been to provoke desire; the desire of little girls to grow up to be gorgeous, the adult desire to have a happy, smiling life, men's desire that women will always look so perfect.
Even the assorted 'career' Barbies managed to make clothes and make-up the main event: 'paediatrician Barbie' wore an indecently short miniskirt revealing a thigh gap so large you could have driven the 45A through it, while 'Unicef Ambassador Barbie' sported a Princess Diana-sized ballgown and hair to match.
And her new incarnation does little to change that impression, whatever Mattel might like to think. Modern Barbie may have moved on from the beach-blonde Californian fantasy girl, but only ever so slightly. Ultimately, she's still a fantasy.
The tall one is gamine and willowy, a lean rock chick with a punk-y Agyness Deyn hairdo. The petite one is cute and pocket-sized, and wears a wholesome floral blouse. She's the girl that men just want to take care of.
Meanwhile, the curvy one, inevitably the most controversial of the bunch, wears a short skirt and has a backside that veers very close to Kardashian territory. Put it this way: fat Barbie is not going to be on Operation Transformation anytime soon. She might be a few pounds overweight, but she has not forgotten to show off her legs to their best advantage and put her lipstick on.
The manufacturers, Mattel, have made no secret of the fact it was simple market economics which drove them to overhaul the toy. Faced with falling sales and fierce competition from the likes of Disney's Elsa and the increasing success of Lego in the little girls' toy market, Mattel had to act.
And in doing so, they want the world to know that they've finally taken on board the criticism levelled against them for years: that Barbie, with her vacuous smile and impossible physique, is bad for girls. One important study confirmed that playing with the doll did, in fact, cause girls to be more self-critical about their body image.
Of course, a quick redesign at a toy factory will do little to solve the complex problem of self-esteem. Long before Barbie was a twinkle in her maker's eye, women were squeezing themselves into corsets to conform to society's expectations of their shape.
We like to lay the blame for our obsession with our weight at the door of popular culture. Advertising executives. Magazine editors and their Photoshopped celebrities. All those catwalk models, fainting from hunger backstage in Paris.
But is that really fair? Or are those industries merely holding up a mirror to our own obsessions, which percolate somewhere else? What if our dissatisfaction with our appearance comes from a place far beyond the reaches of even the wiliest magazine editor? What if there's some corner of the psyche, which is eternally pre-programmed to be critical? To tell us we're not good enough? Not thin enough? Not pretty enough? Not enough?
Nonetheless, to have those suspicions essentially confirmed for you at a very young age by the plastic dimensions of an unrealistic plaything given to you, presumably, by an authority figure, is surely a step in the wrong direction.
Growing up, I never owned a Barbie; even in the mid-eighties, she seemed out of step with the times. One of the worst insults that could be thrown at you back then was that you were a bimbo. And Barbie, arm in arm with her dorky boyfriend Ken, was the quintessential bimbo. She was all tits, ass, and big hair - and she had nothing to say for herself. She still doesn't.
I would be reluctant to give a child a Barbie. They have no message, no story. They aren't heroines, they don't create or make things. They are tiny, depressing, plastic clothes-horses with dead eyes and empty smiles and stiff elbows. There are better things to give your daughters to play with.