Long criticized for her anatomically incorrect body, the iconic doll is getting an overdue makeover. Writer Mackenzie Dawson has the skinny in this Glamour exclusive.
It’s been a busy year for Barbie. Reese Witherspoon is set to produce a biopic of the iconic doll’s creator, Ruth Handler, and there’s a liveaction movie in the works by Juno writer Diablo Cody. Last fall, Barbie’s new campaign, “Imagine the Possibilities,” went viral—but while response to the ads’ images of little girls in precocious professional roles was mostly positive, even it couldn’t overcome Barbie’s decades-long body-image problem. “Cute ad,” tweeted @ShannaHiThere. “If only @Barbie was also giving girls realistic body expectations.”
Tweet and ye shall receive. On January 28, Mattel released three new body types in addition to the Original: Petite, Tall, and—wait for it—Curvy. Unlike past nonconforming Barbie hangers-on (or, as they’re officially dubbed, Friends), these new dolls are actually Barbies. Each is available in different skin- and hair-color combinations, and many have a flatfooted option (in case a lifetime of heels ain’t your thing).
It’s about time. “Barbie was never designed to replicate the female body,” insists Michelle Chidoni, head of communications for all things Barbie. “She was a vehicle for play.” But her unrealistic shape has long dominated the conversation: The International Journal of Eating Disorders reports that the odds of being born with a Barbie-like body are less than 100,000 to 1; the doll’s teeny-tiny waist would accommodate just half a liver and a few inches of intestine, experts say, and her uberlong neck would wilt under the weight of her disproportionately huge head.
In recent years, even singer Demi Lovato has called for a curvier model; indeed, Mattel’s own research found that millennial moms had a negative impression of the doll, which helps explain Barbie’s nearly four-year sales slump worldwide.
But rethinking a brand with sales as high as $300 million a quarter is no small thing. The process of relaunching the doll was super secret, and featured highprofile collaborators like American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Misty Copeland and award-winning documentarian Rory Kennedy (Ethel, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib), who produced a video about the making of the new dolls. “Will they change the world?” she says. “No. But it’s relevant for little girls to see a doll that looks like them.”
So: Did Mattel go far enough in reconceiving the 57-year-old icon? The new and improved Barbies aren’t perfect, but they’re an excellent start. We dig their physiques, their fun new hair colors (blue? hell, yeah!), and their chic street style (those turquoise statement earrings are definitely a Glamour Do). It’s also worth noting that Barbie seems to catch all the flak while other doll bodies are equally unrealistic (hello, Bratz and Monster High dolls, with your bobble heads and barely there outfits). Granted, this isn’t Barbie’s first attempt to keep up with the times. Witness Share a Smile Becky, a well-intentioned friend of Barbie’s whose wheelchair couldn’t fit through the Dream House’s front door. And while we’re all for the Curvy and Petite dolls, we have to ask: Did girls really clamor for an even taller Barbie? (They did, insists Chidoni.)
But the big win here is that many more girls can now play with a doll that actually resembles them, rather than a vivid reminder of something they’ll never be. And that’s pretty powerful.