To date, Barbie manufacturer Mattel has since expanded the brand to include more than 175 dolls with varying skin types, hairstyles, and body types, as well as a doll with vitiligo, a doll with Down syndrome, dolls that use a wheelchair or a prosthetic limb, a doll with hearing aids, and a doll without hair. And when I more recently found out that Greta Gerwig would be directing the new Barbie movie—and had plans to use the film to address the doll's problematic past and include Barbies of all shapes and sizes, all through a feminist lens—I marked my calendar for July 21 and started planning my hot pink outfit for premiere day.
Fast-forward to about a month ago, when Barbiemania emerged in full force amid the movie’s official press tour and general cultural excitement. It’s become impossible to log on to social media (or drive down any billboard-laden street or walk into a freaking Zara store) without being bombarded with images of Barbie’s blonde hair, blue eyes, and thin body in the form of actor Margot Robbie, who’s playing the iconic doll in the film. It didn’t take long before my work inbox began to flood with emails from beauty brands with products that promised to make me (and, by proxy, any Well+Good reader) look as blonde, smooth, and perfect as Barbie. The rhetoric brought me right back to feeling the same way as I did when I was 10 years old and realized that I would never look like that Barbie.
To be clear: I haven’t seen the movie. From what I understand, though, the beauty industry’s commoditization of and messaging surrounding Barbiemania is in complete opposition to the film’s messaging, which reportedly rejects the perception that Barbie—in her classic form—is the pinnacle of feminine beauty. “I don’t think you should say, ‘This is the one version of what Barbie is, and that’s what women should aspire to be and look like and act like,’” Robbie recently told Time magazine. “If [Mattel] hadn’t made that change to have a multiplicity of Barbies, I don’t think I would have wanted to attempt to make a Barbie film.”
Though the film features various actors playing various Barbies—Issa Rae as President Barbie, Sharon Rooney as Lawyer Barbie, Kate McKinnon as Gymnast Barbie—it’s Robbie’s “Stereotypical Barbie” (a moniker in the movie meant to highlight that the original blonde Barbie may still be most associated with the toy but isn’t the only legitimate one on the block) whose likeness we can’t escape. And certain segments of the beauty industry have capitalized on the insecurity that the traditional Barbie image evokes to try to sell products—completely missing the point of the steps that the film has tried to take forward and, in effect, messing with our mental health.
When Barbie hit the shelves 1959, she was the first ever mass-produced adult doll on the market. Before she came around, baby dolls that taught little girls how to be mothers were the only option. At the time, Barbie’s blonde hair, blue eyes, and itty-bitty waist represented the “ideal” woman. It wasn’t until 50 years later—in 2014!—that people caught on to the fact that it would be physically impossible for a human to actually look like her (her breast-to-waist ratio would cause her to topple over, she’d have to walk on all fours, and she wouldn’t be able to hold up her own head).
But by then, the damage had already been done. A 2016 study—which, coincidentally, came out the same year that the body-inclusive Barbies were introduced—found that girls aged 6 to 8 who played with Barbies were more likely to experience body dissatisfaction than those who played with what the research calls full-figured dolls. And now, the once-inanimate doll has come to life in the form of a living, breathing, human being.
Again, though the film itself and Robbie’s portrayal of Barbie reportedly aims to be progressive, in the lead-up to the premiere, the attention given to her resemblance of the original iteration of the doll is unignorable. To no fault of Robbie’s, the fanfare associated with the movie has brought the doll’s impossible beauty standards out of Barbieland and into the real world, which has paved the way for Barbiemania to mess with our heads in an entirely new way.
“When it’s just a plastic doll, we can look at the doll and say, ‘That’s made in a factory, that’s not attainable. It’s 12 inches tall, its measurements are ridiculous, I couldn’t look like that.’ While we might still feel an emotional desire to look perfect, we know it’s a doll,” says Carla Marie Manly, PhD, author of Joy From Fear. “However, when Hollywood makes a human being into the doll, it’s not a human-to-doll comparison any longer—it’s human-to-human. Our brains don’t go through the steps of thinking that it took perfect lighting, great costuming, an entire crew, and many hours of work to achieve that look. They immediately think, ‘If another human looks that good, I should be able to look that good, too.’”
Dr. Manly calls the phenomenon that this evokes “toxic comparison,” which causes us to stop focusing on becoming the best versions of ourselves in favor of trying to be like someone else. “The minute we start comparing ourselves to any other human being is the minute we go down the slippery slope of worsening our self-esteem and our ability to really embrace self-love,” she says. “Instead of using your energy to evolve into a better version of you, that energy is going toward thinking ‘What can I buy? What can I do to myself to look like this other person?’ So you’re inherently giving yourself the message that you’re not good enough.”
Beauty brands have capitalized on Barbiemania in a way that feels… icky
As images of “Stereotypical Barbie” have become ubiquitous, many brands have capitalized on the potential insecurities they bring to light by offering products and services that will make you look more like a classic Barbie.
In the past week alone, I’ve received emails about “The Barbie Drug” (aka Melanotan, a nasal spray that makes you look tan and that doctors absolutely advise against using), a “Barbie Butt lift,” a lip plumper to make you ”pout like Barbie,” and a slew of “last minute beauty buys to turn you into the Barbie of your dreams.” A plastic surgeon on Long Island is even offering a “Barbie Makeover”—complete with a breast augmentation, liposuction, facial reconstruction, and whatever other custom cosmetic services you may need to transform into Barbie—for $120,000.
“If advertisers or the media can convince us that we need to be a certain type of individual, especially one that is unattainable, then they not only have our attention, but they also have our discretionary income,” says Dr. Manly. “The more they can make us feel as though we are imperfect in negative ways, the more they have grabbed us for a lifetime of wanting to be something that is not only unhealthy to achieve, but impossible.”
None of these products or services are related to the movie in any official capacity—the film’s actual beauty partnerships (with brands like NYX, OPI, and Kitsch) are cute, fun, and overwhelmingly pink. But there’s a stark difference between getting a #barbiecore manicure and engaging in questionable cosmetic practices meant to make you look like a doll.
“By most accounts, the new Barbie movie will be a feminist take on the character, but the film still embraces the look of an archetypal Barbie—with her non-functional feet and tiny, flat, ski-slope nose…I worry about reintroducing these ideals, even in the context of a modern story,” says Dara Liotta, MD, a facial plastic surgeon in Manhattan. “Romancing Barbie may not be not good for [people’s] mental health,”
It’s time we move beyond the old-school version of Barbie beauty
I love—and have always loved—Barbie, and am genuinely excited to see how Robbie, Gerwig, and everyone else involved in the project will contribute to shifting her narrative onscreen. But for all of the feminist strides the film promises to make, it’s a real disappointment to see the beauty world using the opportunity as an excuse to peddle the same tired beauty standards. Barbie herself has moved beyond—in a spaceship, on a motorcycle, and in her iconic pink Corvette—so why can’t we?
And for those of us who are feeling insecure in bodies that don’t fit into the Stereotypical Barbie level of perfection, remember: “She’s factory-formed, and we are human,” says Dr. Manly. “We want to celebrate and honor the uniqueness of the ordinary human form, the everyday beauty of a woman who knows and loves and feels good about herself regardless of her physical appearance—who loves herself from the inside out.”
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