Silky golden tresses, unfailingly chic attire, dainty hourglass figure, enviably endless legs. From head to toe, she is the image of perfect beauty. Only one problem: Barbie isn’t real. Instead of skin and blood, she is vinyl—and her artificial image has raised red flags over the years.
Enter “Beautiful and Bald” Barbie. Despite Barbie’s traditionally superficial image, two mothers saw her as an opportunity to convey different definitions of beauty and raise awareness about diseases that cause hair loss. Jane Bingham and Beckie Sypin launched a Facebook page in December 2011 to campaign Mattel, Inc. to produce a bald Barbie. The results were, in a word, viral: the page had over 75,000 likes by January, and a storm of media attention followed. Although Mattel initially responded with only a concise statement that the company “doesn’t accept ideas from outside sources,” Bingham and Sypin persisted with the campaign. They believed that Barbie had the power to help children understand and cope with cancer treatment hair loss, the power to reduce the stigma associated with baldness. Both mothers were far too familiar with the experience of losing hair due to treatment—Sypin’s daughter lost her hair after being diagnosed with leukemia in January 2011, and Bingham herself lost her hair after chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Their determined efforts finally paid off: Mattel announced in March that it will be making a one-time production of a bald “friend of Barbie” to be donated to hospitals across the country. On top of that, MGA released a line of bald Bratz and Moxie dolls that hit stores this summer. The Beautiful and Bald Barbie page has grown into a non-profit organization deemed The Beautiful and Bald Movement, and a petition is under way to convince Mattel to sell its new bald dolls in stores as well. Even if the movement’s efforts are far from over, the overwhelming response made it clear that the message was heard. This is not, of course, the only message that Barbie has ever sent to society. But stacked against the beautiful, the ugly and the purely laughable in the plastic celebrity’s past, this recent commotion suggests that maybe her role in the real world needs to be reevaluated.
Since her entrance to the pop culture scene in 1959, Barbie has been simultaneously worshipped and condemned. Rare is the American girl who has never coveted those achingly stylish outfits and vicariously brought to life that flawless beauty. Yet though Barbie has been welcomed with open arms by countless little girls over the years, she has also been criticized by worried mothers and righteous feminists.
Admittedly, Barbie has had her share of missteps. A simple look at a list of (thankfully) archived models is more than enough to confirm this. Several of these designs range from the ridiculous—in case anyone needed a cat burglar Barbie—to the insulting—because of course all girls proclaim, as Teen Talk Barbie does, “Math class is tough.” (The American Association of University Women demanded that Mattel modify that one, stating that it was “a shame that Mattel didn’t give [Barbie] a more confident [voice].”) And it isn’t difficult to imagine why mothers weren’t ecstatic at the idea of their daughters playing with characters such as Lingerie Barbie, tattooed Barbie or Barbie’s pregnant (and single) friend. Topping it all off, of course, is the most exhausted topic of the Barbie hate club: body image. The fact that Barbie’s proportions on a real woman would be not only unhealthy but also physically impossible—she would literally tip over forward—has been the subject of endless criticism. Many have worried that Barbie’s unrealistic physical appearance leads impressionable young girls to have unhealthy body images and even be at risk for eating disorders. Even though Mattel gave the doll a healthier waist size and made other modifications in 1997 , it’s evident that Barbie is far from a perfect role model. Even today many complain of her harmful influence on social morals and standards.
On the other hand, not all of Barbie’s influence is bad. She may have originally been an all-American beauty, but over the years the blonde bombshell has formed identities representing almost all corners of the globe. She is Irish, Native American, Kenyan, Argentinean. She is a historical princess or a native folk character. She is an image of almost every world culture, race, and ethnicity imaginable. Along with this diversity, she is a model for the inspiring possibilities open to women. It may not be entirely feasible for anyone to be a doctor, astronaut, military officer, politician and teacher in one lifetime. But the myriad of identities Barbie takes on sends a message very different from the objectifying, stereotypical and unhealthy one that many accuse the doll of displaying.
After all, this is no mere piece of plastic. Barbie has become a living entity with a constantly evolving style and a career nearly as turbulent as Lindsay Lohan’s court record. Whether cherished as a beloved toy or vilified as a poison to young minds, there’s no denying that the glamorous doll has become a hugely influential pop culture icon—as of 2008, three Barbies were sold every second. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. In fact, Barbie’s iconic popularity provides an opportunity to make a powerful statement and set a true example. She has the ears of millions of girls around the world, and it’s time she put that influence to good use.
Whatever messages Barbie has sent in the past, the crux of the matter is the possibility of what she could say in the future. Barbie’s iconic image is not going to go away. She is a human creation, and she has taken on human characteristics: imperfection, but also voice. Beyond accepting that she’s here to stay, maybe we need to consider a new stance on the plastic beauty queen. Not as an insidious thing sending a harmful message but as an opportunity to send a message of our own. Her power as an icon of beauty is undeniable; whether she sports a polished naked head or a glittering ball gown, she molds the definition of beautiful and successful. In this vein, if we stop wasting energy on assassination attempts of a ubiquitous figure and instead actually use the influence she has, Barbie could be so much more than a superficial piece of plastic.