Indeed, if there is only one type of beautiful person, it contributes to increased insecurity in women who happen to be a different shape or size from the "ideal" women perpetuated in the popular culture.
According to Dank, Norton, Olds and Olive (1996), there has a lengthy association between dolls and ideal proportions, a relationship going back to Greek times. For example, pre-18th century dolls were manufactured so as to reflect classically ideal proportions, and many believe that the contemporary versions as manifested in Barbie and Ken ideals are completely unrealistic, especially during a period of increasing global diversity. Some studies have focused on the actual physical measurements and proportions of the dolls, comparing them to adults (Dank et al., 1996).
One such study determined that it was not the chest measurement of Barbie that was out of proportion, as some consumers and critics have suggested; rather, it is actually her waist that is out of proportion, a waist that is comparatively smaller than the rest of her body (Dank et al., 1996). It remains unclear how these extreme body proportions are interpreted by American children and what influence they can have on body image and long-term expectations of body size and shape; however, some literature links excessive dieting, even to the point of anorexia, to Barbie influence at a young age (Dank et al., 1996).
According to Driscoll, Barbie's impact on young girls' perceptions of their body image is manifested in an entire range of life process in later years based on these early encounters. "Barbie might be the ultimate clean and proper body for which the girl-subject of puberty manuals impossibly strives, but Barbie is never complete, which is why she accessorizes everything, including semiotic and pragmatic functions: occupations, families, names, ethnicities, and identities" (p. 98). The ubiquitous nature of Barbie dolls and the nature of the marketing associated with this product, then, continue to represent one of the powerful methods by which mainstream American society continues to enforce a standard-but-virtually-unattainable version of the female body in the minds of the young girls who will inevitably purchase and play with them.
Driscoll points out that although Barbie is adolescent in physiology and is static in terms of development, she "does map the construction of the body as a space marked and crossed by lines of inclusion and exclusion, such as puberty, and this raises the specter of Barbie's body image" (p. 99). The "specter" to which Driscoll refers is not necessarily the Barbie doll (and her multitude of accessories) per se, but rather the standardized body image that the doll itself communicates to American girls.
Although her "ungainly and impossible body is not necessarily a bad thing," Driscoll suggests that "Barbie does reinforce sameness by association with such bodily norms, which also pivotally include the racial marking of Barbie's body and her related association with the territoriality of America" (p. 99). Hesse-Biber points out that these forces can have a profoundly adverse effect on young women in search of a sound framework in which to grow and prosper; in fact, some researchers have even suggested that the onset of depression and eating issues in young women are the result of their poor body image. According to Rachel a. Vannatta (1997), the use of diet pills by women for weight problems may be symptomatic of poor body image and low self-esteem, a condition that is frequently associated with suicidal females.
Furthermore, it is in the best interests of mainstream (read "male") society to maintain these unattainable body images of women since there is a lot of money and the power that goes with it at stake. "Because women feel their bodies fail the beauty test," Hesse-Biber says, "American industry benefits enormously, continually nurturing feminine insecurities. Ruling patriarchal interests, like corporate culture, the traditional family, the government, and the media also benefit" (p. 32). While this may sound like so much conspiratorial feminist rhetoric, the author suggests that when women are busy trying to manage their body images through dieting, excessive exercise, and self-improvement activities, they will lose control over other important aspects of self-hood that might upset the status quo.
Furthermore, American women tend to be influenced more by the mainstream attitudes concerning body image than their own peers. "In creating women's concept of the ideal body image, the cultural mirror is more influential than the mirror reflecting peer group attitudes" (Hesse-Biber, 1997 p. 32). According to research conducted by Cohn and Adler (1992), American women tend overestimate how thin a body their male and female peers desire. "In a recent study using body silhouettes, college students of both sexes were asked to indicate an ideal female figure, the one that they believed most attractive to the same-sex peer and other-sex peer. Not only did the women select a thinner silhouette than the men, but when asked to choose a personal ideal, rather than a peer ideal, the women selected an even skinnier model" (Cohn & Adler, 1992 p. 72).
The research showed that the implications of perpetuating idealized body images among many American women are profound, especially in terms of sexuality and self-esteem. Beginning with Dr. Nancy Chodorow's early work on body image and its impact on female self-esteem and development, feminist authors such as Rosemary Tong, Sharlene Hesse-Biber, Catherine Driscoll and others, the growing evidence suggests that young girls in America continue to be subjected to powerful social and economic forces such as Barbie dolls that create idealized but unattainable body images that warp their perceptions of what they should look like and why.
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Dank, S., Norton, K., Olds, T., and Olive, S. (1996). Ken and Barbie at life size. A Journal of Research, 34, 287.
Driscoll, Catherine. 2002. Girls: Feminine Adolescence in Popular Culture and Cultural Theory. New York: Columbia University Press.
Grosz, Elizabeth. 1994. Volatile Bodies: Towards a Corporeal Feminism. St. Leonards, Australia: Allen and Unwin,
Hesse-Biber, Sharlene. 1997. Am I Thin Enough Yet?: The Cult of Thinness and the Commercialization of Identity. New York: Oxford University Press.