To date, Barbie maker Mattel has expanded the brand to include more than 175 dolls with different skin types, hairstyles and body types, as well as a doll with vitiligo, a doll with Down syndrome, dolls who use a wheelchair or prosthesis, a doll with hearing aids and a doll with no hair. And when I found out more recently that Greta Gerwig would be directing the new Barbie movie—and had plans to use the film to address the doll’s troubled past and include Barbies from all shapes and sizes, all through a feminist lens—I marked my calendar for July 21st and began planning my hot pink opening day outfit.
Fast forward to about a month ago, when Barbiemania came up in full force amid the film’s official press tour and general cultural excitement. It’s become impossible to log on to social media (or drive down any billboard-lined street or walk into a damn Zara store) without being bombarded with images of Barbie’s blonde hair, blue eyes, and slim body in the form of actress Margot Robbie, who plays the iconic doll in the film. It wasn’t long before my work inbox started flooding with emails from beauty brands with products promising to make me (and, by proxy, any Well+Good reader) look blonde, smooth, and perfect like Barbie. The rhetoric made me feel the same way I did when I was 10 years old and I realized that I would never see myself as that Barbie.
To be clear: I haven’t seen the movie. However, from what I understand, the commodification of the beauty industry and the messages surrounding Barbiemania are in complete opposition to the messages of the film, which supposedly 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 only version of what Barbie is, and that’s what women should aspire to be, look and act like,'” Robbie said recently. Time magazine. “If (Mattel) hadn’t made that change to have a multiplicity of Barbies, I don’t think I would have wanted to try to make a Barbie movie.”
Although the film features several 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 film meant to highlight that the original blonde Barbie may still be more associated with the toy, but she’s not the only legitimate one on the block) whose resemblance we can’t escape. And certain segments of the beauty industry have capitalized on the insecurity evoked by the traditional image of Barbie to try to sell products, completely missing the point of the steps the film has tried to take and, in effect, messing with our sanity.
When Barbie hit the shelves in 1959, she was the first mass-produced adult doll on the market. Before she came along, dolls that taught girls how to be mothers were the only option. At the time, Barbie’s blonde hair, blue eyes and tiny waist represented the “ideal” woman. It was not until 50 years later, in 2014!—that people became aware of the fact that it would be physically impossible for a human being to look like her (her chest to waist ratio would cause her to fall over, she would have to walk on all fours and she would not be able to support her own head).
But by then, the damage had already been done. A 2016 study, which, coincidentally, was published the same year that full-body Barbies were introduced, found that girls ages 6 to 8 who played with Barbies were more likely to experience body dissatisfaction than those who played with what research calls full-figure dolls. And now, the once inanimate doll has come to life in the form of a living, breathing human.
Again, while the film itself and Robbie’s interpretation of Barbie are meant to be forward-thinking, in the run-up to the release, the attention paid to her resemblance to the original iteration of the doll is unmissable. Through no fault of Robbie, the fanfare associated with the film has brought the Barbieland doll’s impossible beauty standards out into the real world, paving the way for Barbie mania to get into our heads in a whole 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 possible. He’s 12 inches tall, his measurements are ridiculous, he couldn’t look like that.’ While we may still have 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 turns a human into a doll, it’s no longer a human-to-doll comparison, it’s human-to-human. Our brains don’t go through the steps of thinking that it took perfect lighting, a great wardrobe, a full crew, and many hours of work to achieve that look. They immediately think, ‘If another human being looks this good, I should be able to look this good too.’
Dr. Manly calls the phenomenon this evokes “toxic comparison,” which causes us to stop focusing on becoming the best versions of ourselves to try to be like someone else. “The moment we start comparing ourselves to every other human being is the moment we fall down the slippery slope of worsening our self-esteem and our ability to truly embrace self-love,” she says. “Instead of using your energy to evolve into a better version of you, that energy goes to the thought ‘What can I buy? What can I do 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 Barbie mania in a way that feels… repulsive.
As images of the “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 gotten emails about “The Barbie Drug” (aka Melanotan, a nasal spray that makes you look tanned and is strongly discouraged by doctors), a “Barbie butt lift,” a fuller lip to make you a “Barbie pout,” and a bunch of “last-minute beauty buys to make you the Barbie of your dreams.” A plastic surgeon on Long Island is even offering a “Barbie makeover,” complete with breast augmentation, liposuction, facial reconstruction, and any other custom cosmetic services you may need to transform yourself 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 who is unattainable, then they will not only have our attention, but also our discretionary income,” says Dr. Manly. “The more they can make us feel like we’re imperfect in a negative way, the more they’ll trap us into a lifetime of wanting to be something that’s not just unhealthy to achieve, but impossible.” None of these products or services are officially related to the movie: the movie current beauty partnerships (with brands like NYX, OPI, and Kitsch) are cute, fun, and overwhelmingly pink. But there’s a big difference between getting your #barbiecore manicure and engaging in questionable cosmetic practices designed to make you look like a doll.
“According to most accounts, the new Barbie The film will be a feminist version of the character, but still takes on the look of an archetypal Barbie, with her non-functional feet and tiny, flat, ski-slope-shaped nose… I’m concerned about reintroducing these ideals, even in the context of a modern story,” says Dara Liotta, MD, a facial plastic surgeon in Manhattan. “Having an affair with Barbie may not be good for (people’s) mental health,”
It’s time we moved beyond the old-school version of the Barbie beauty.
I love, and have always loved, Barbie, and I’m genuinely excited to see how Robbie, Gerwig, and everyone else involved in the project will contribute to changing her on-screen narrative. But for all the feminist advances the film promises to make, it’s a real disappointment to see the beauty world use the opportunity as an excuse to sell the same tired beauty standards. Barbie herself has gone further – on 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 Barbie’s stereotypical level of perfection, remember, “She’s factory-formed and we’re 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, loves and feels good about herself regardless of her physical appearance, that she loves herself from the inside out.”