Earlier this week a young Russian model named Valerie Lukyanova made international news for supposedly wanting to become a real-life Barbie, trying to look "perfect" through meticulous makeup and multiple plastic surgeries.
The story is likely a hoax or, at best, very sloppy reporting. But that hasn't stopped plenty of writers and bloggers from latching onto the news and using it as a horrific object lesson in the dangers of the relentless pursuit of beauty (and a warning about girls and women who may see Barbie dolls as ideals).
For decades journalists, feminists and social critics have assumed that young girls idolize Barbie dolls. Time magazine's Amy Dickinson claimed that "women my age know whom to blame for our own self-loathing, eating disorders and distorted body image: Barbie."
In her feminist best-seller "The Beauty Myth," Naomi Wolf claims Barbie is seen as an "ideal" woman. The claim is widely asserted and repeated.
But is it true? Is Barbie really an early role model presented as an "ideal?" After all, children play with many toys and see countless images, few of which they presumably see as realistic (or even attainable) ideals.
Surprisingly little research has been done specifically on girls' opinions of Barbie dolls; indeed, researchers Tara Kuther and Erin McDonald note in their article "Early Adolescents' Experiences with, and Views of, Barbie" (Adolescence, Vol. 39, No. 153) that "the extant literature about Barbie dolls tends to be opinionated and based on essays and popular media articles" instead of science or evidence-based research.
This may be due partly to the widespread assumptions (promoted in part by Barbie's maker, Mattel) that the dolls are universally beloved - after all, why bother to spend considerable time and effort designing and conducting a study to tell you what everybody already knows (or thinks they know)?
The handful of research studies that have been done hold some surprising results. For example, the Kuther and McDonald study mentioned above concluded that "most notably girls reported ambivalence toward Barbie dolls."
In 2005 a team of British researchers from the University of Bath "found that many 7- to 11-year-old girls hate the doll so much that they physically attack it. ... Barbie is hated because she is 'babyish,' 'unfashionable,' 'plastic,' has multiple selves and because she is a feminine icon."
Not only do many of the girls dislike Barbie, they actively mutilate and torture their dolls. According to lead researcher Agnes Nairn, "the girls we spoke to see Barbie torture as a legitimate play activity. ... The types of mutilation are varied and creative, and range from removing the hair to decapitation, burning, breaking, and even microwaving."
The reason, Nairn said, was that girls saw Barbie as childish, an inanimate object instead of a treasured toy.
These studies and others suggest that the "Barbie ideal" may be based more on myth than truth. Instead of universally idolizing Barbie, many girls are ambivalent if not outright hostile to it. Nor is there good evidence that girls (or women) view the doll as a physical role model.
Thus the often-heard complaints that Barbie's dimensions are unhealthy or inhuman are beside the point, since Barbie is not real, and girls don't think of the doll as real (nor even potentially real).
Barbie was never claimed nor intended to represent a human body nor any physical ideal. It's just a toy, and there's no evidence that girls interpret their Barbies (or Bratz or Raggedy Ann dolls) as anything they're supposed to look like.
This is, of course, good news for parents who don't need to worry about what potential body-damaging influences Barbies may have for little girls who play with them. The physical idolization of Barbie by girls and young women is, thankfully, largely a media-created myth.