After 50 Years, What is Barbie's Impact on Girls and Women?

If Barbie were real, she'd be eligible for AARP membership today.

On this, her 50th birthday, she doesn't appear to be ready for retirement yet. Like a true survivor, she's outwitted, outlasted, and outplayed every other doll over the decades including Tammy, Dawn, Beautiful Crissy (with beautiful hair that grows), and even contemporary competitors Bratz. It's hard to believe, but 1 billion Barbies have been sold since her inception.

After 50 years of playing with Barbie, what have we learned? Now that many of us are mothers and grandmothers with daughters and granddaughters of our own, do we feel any differently about this diminutive piece of molded plastic? How can a child's plaything - which stands just under 12 inches tall - loom so large in our culture and society? Has she really influenced women in a negative way as her many critics claim?

As the world celebrates Barbie's 50th birthday, here's a look at why we have a love-hate relationship with the iconic figure:

  • A comparison of real women vs. Barbie
    According to Boston University student K. Wysocki:
    "Barbie's neck is twice as long as the average human's which would make it impossible to hold up her head....Barbie's legs are 50% longer than her arms, whereas the average woman's legs are only 20% longer than her arms....If a woman had the same measurements as Barbie, she would not have enough body fat to menstruate (and obviously to have children)."
  • How a cartoon prostitute was the inspiration for Barbie
    TIME magazine reports:
    "In 1956, Ruth Handler, an American businesswoman, was vacationing in Switzerland when she came across Bild Lilli, a doll that, unlike popular baby dolls at the time, had long, shapely legs and wore heavy makeup. Lilli, in fact, was based on a prostitute in a postwar German cartoon, but Handler was inspired. She bought three Lilli dolls, returned to California and in 1959 created the world's first Barbie doll."
  • What the Barbie image means to women of color
    From Kyra, the blogger behind Black Threads:
    "[W]hen I worked as a marketing strategist for Hallmark Keepsake Ornaments....I had a heated discussion about Barbie ornaments at work with my then manager....To deal with my anger, I came home and worked through my feelings by designing and stitching this quilt here. Black Barbie Quilt is based on the original Barbie doll. In the background I've painted repetitiously, 'Black Barbie has no name.' Appliqued is 'Barbie, America's Doll was never intended for me.' This quilt has been exhibited at the American Folk Art Museum ('Talking Quilts') in New York and, more recently at the Fenimore Art Museum.

    What does Barbie mean to an African American woman or a young black girl?"

  • Barbie from a women's studies perspective
    Bethany Brendon, writing for Highlander, the student newspaper of the University of California at Riverside, notes:
    "Women's studies professor Christine Gaily agrees with the negative opinions of Barbie dolls. 'Barbie has had, decidedly, I think, a very negative impact on the self-esteem of young girls, because nobody is shaped like her unless they go through endless plastic surgeries.'

    Gaily also believes that Barbie promotes young girls to aim for gender-defined roles, with Barbie being a veterinarian but never a surgeon. 'It is hardly the kind of plaything that you really want to encourage girls to play with.'...

    Barbie dolls have always existed with the same type of small, bird-like features....This similarity, even among Barbies of different races, is something Women's Studies professor Piya Chatterjee points out. 'I think the questions of race, and racialization of Barbie is really important to think about.'

    Chatterjee notes that even Barbies of different races, such as Indian Barbie and African-American Barbie, have 'Caucasian' features and bodies."

    For more on Barbie:
    Boomers Remember the Barbie Doll

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