A Barbie World: Pretty Little Lie in Pink

by Chelci Prosise

Chelci Prosise is a Letters major from Justin, TX; she wrote this essay in Catherine Mintler’s Fall 2019 “Doubles and Döppelgangers” class.

Like many other girls I knew, I grew up with a bucket of bright blonde Barbie dolls, all with individualized outfits that went with their different occupations. There was a pilot, a race car driver, a doctor, and many other tasks that, at one point, would have been considered to be “a man’s job.” These dolls were meant to empower girls and make them believe that they can do anything men can do. However, this backfired, and instead of girls focusing on the abundance of jobs that Barbie had suddenly acquired, they zeroed in on her short pink skirts, her hairstyle, and which high heels were going to match the best. In short, we were drawn to the dolls’ appearances, not their professional potential. As a grown-up, I asked my mother why she purchased these dolls. Her answer was honestly unsurprising. She said, “Well, Rylee [my best friend at the time] had just received several new dolls for her birthday and you asked and begged and cried because she wanted to play with Barbies, so I went out and got you one.” She continued by telling me how the one doll snowballed into a collection, and I went from one toy to having a magic castle, two pink sports cars, and a Ken doll with his wardrobe. As a child, one of the many fun tasks you enjoy is pretending, and I pretended I was a Barbie living in a magic pink castle with a pink wardrobe and a pink car. However, I didn’t know how pretending to be Barbie would affect my life and the lives of many other young girls in the real world, and while the negative impact of such impossible models on the self-esteem of women is now widely acknowledged, the psychology of this dangerous obsession is seldom explored or understood. Looking back now as a twenty-year-old college student, I see that we under estimated the control this plastic doll had over us. We took this persona onto ourselves, thus creating an uncanny bridge between humans and dolls in which we confused the unfamiliar with the unattainable.

As we grew up, we didn’t outgrow our Barbies; we opted for the larger versions of them: mannequins. Girls have often compared themselves to a Barbie doll given the overwhelming feeling of societal pressure to have long blonde hair, unattainably long legs, and a fixed-sized zero in order to be “pretty,” so it’s no surprise that when you walk past a shop window, that’s what mannequins resemble, but why would such unrealistic, unattainable models prove so appealing? Sigmund Freud better explains this bridge in his 1919 essay “The Uncanny” in which he defines the uncanny as frightening because it is familiar but unknown. In particular, he writes, ” . . . the uncanny is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar.” And later he connects this concept to German psychiatrist Ernst Jentsch’s original writings on the same: “Jentsch has taken as a very good instance ‘doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate’; and he refers in this connection to the impression made by waxwork figures, ingeniously constructed dolls and automata. It‘s this set of circumstances that creates a perfect storm; there is just enough familiarity to recognize a human aspect in a doll or mannequin but not enough to view it as one. Both dolls and mannequins fall under the uncanny category due to one significant aspect: both were created to look like humans as they were modeled after them. Therefore, we recognize dolls because they look like humans but find them both frightening and fascinating because, despite the resemblance, they are not animated, thus rendering them familiar yet unfamiliar. And the uncanny resemblance of a mannequin to humans is how theses dolls have a continuous effect on a woman after childhood. Both dolls and mannequins create unrealistic expectations that girls then place on themselves, altering the view of societal standards in addition to creating an irrational need to look more like a humanistic creation than humanity itself and thereby resolve the unfamiliar with the familiar.

In addition to Sigmund Freud, authors such as Caroline Evans and Sara Schneider both write of the uncanny resemblances of dolls and mannequins as well as some of the many side effects that these creations have had on several generations of young girls. Caroline Evans, the author of “The Ontology of the Fashion Model,” writes of the unique similarities of the model between the “model dress and model woman.” She quotes German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who describes how dolls make us aware of that silence that’s larger than life, the silence being the uncontrollable need to model after the “models.” Evans also confirms that “Indeed, the first fashion models were dolls,” which brings up the question as to why we feel the need to look like them. This point is also brought up by Sara Schneider, the author of “Body Design, Variable Realism: The Case of Female Fashion Mannequins.” In it, she discusses the idea of mannequins and their effects on consumers. She researched the idea that mannequins were used to display clothes, but due to the disproportionate body type the mannequin had, the consumer felt uncomfortable purchasing the outfit. The idea that a human is unwilling to buy clothes out of fear that they would not look as good as they did on the mannequin raises several questions. However, one would believe that this would in fact defeat the ultimate purpose: sales and they would be right, but not entirely. This furthers the body image crisis by making women believe that they need to resemble the mannequin in order to buy the clothing therefore driving women to look more and more like the dolls they grew up with.

Furthermore, both Evans’ and Schneider’s pieces hit hard on the importance of dolls and how they are used to create “glamorized images of ourselves” (Schneider 18). In fact, the concept of dolls is shown in both essays to idealize the perfect body for the models that were later used. Plainly stated, a doll is a version of ourselves, a version that we idolize and strive to become, thus establishing the uncanny bridge between dolls and humans. Freud’s concept of the uncanny further connects to Evans’ research when she discovered that “the first fashion models were dolls: they were the models for models” (58). This also shows that dolls were created by the assembly of individual parts that lead to the creation of the ideal woman.

Moreover, this is what makes dolls uncanny: the idea that people were “quite selective of the details,” and they “pick the nice things out” (Schnieder 17). In other words, they created the ideal and unattainable image of a woman and handed it to a child. This childhood icon was supposed to convince little girls that they wanted to grow up and be their Barbie doll, but once again, society twisted it. Instead of young girls striving to become Doctor Barbie or Lawyer Barbie, they focused on appearances and attempted to wear the same outfits and to have the same shiny hair. In a sense, young girls aimed to become what they saw, other bodies that other humans had decided were the best qualities and the perfect aspects of women. In his essay, Freud further argues that “children do not distinguish at all sharply between living and lifeless objects, and that they are especially fond of treating their dolls like live people,” much like having an imaginary friend who you can dress up and control their lives. In the way little girls look up to their mothers, they also look up to their dolls and treat them in the same light, which is what creates an uncanny bond between them since the dolls can’t talk back or offer life lessons. Young girls are playing with dolls that have the body of an impossible woman, thereby warping their young minds into believing that they don’t look right because they don’t look like a Barbie.

Also, Schnieders’s idea of picking out the specific qualities of a woman to create early mannequins sheds light on many stereotypes. I believe that placing together all of the so-called perfect attributes of a woman into a doll causes people to begin striving to create themselves in that vision; thus, the stereotypical ideal woman is created. Furthermore, in Jean Rhys’s piece “Mannequin,” she writes of “The traditional blonde infant” as one example of the “traditional looks,” or what we would now call a “stereotype,” to assign a personality type to these mannequins. These stereotypes are being used to give each “woman” her social identity. For example, if you have a blonde personality, like a Barbie doll, you are considered to be less academically developed and have a higher tendency to care more about looks. Rhys describes “the sleek, white, purring, long-lashed creature” as being the one that men would choose to go after due to her looks. Such insight shows that we can argue that these women are receiving personality traits based on how they look and whom men would choose to “seek and adore.” This idea is especially well-highlighted when discussed by Schneider, who stated that, “Once attention was given to the face, personality became associated with the mannequins—a personality that would transcend changes of body pose or attitude” (Schneider 8). The entirety of the mannequin being changed to better support their facial expressions can be exploited by the fact that girls are taught by their dolls how to dress and act from a young age. Are we doing the same thing with mannequins? Is there a possibility that grown women are comparing themselves to an inanimate humanoid figure? Are supermodels striving to look more like a mannequins “to better wear the clothes,” and is society deciding that mannequins are the superior version of the female body? If so, this elucidates the impression that beginning in childhood, women are fond of the uncanny, glorified version of themselves, seductive in their dual familiarity/unfamiliarity, and they often make their lifestyle choices in hopes of having a body image that would pass as them looking like a Barbie.

In a sense, we are all just passing through life; we put on our makeup, we color our hair, we walk through the day hoping that someone will compliment the outfit we have chosen just to shrug it off and say, “Oh, this is? I just threw it together,” even though we spent days coordinating the perfect outfit. The overall hope is to become Freud’s definition of uncanny: a walking breathing model of a Barbie, to look like the ideal woman. In one particular case the want to become the doll herself was taken to an extreme by Ukrainian model Valeria Valeryevna Lukyanova who has devoted her life to becoming the real-life version of the famous doll. She has spent more than 35,000 thousand dollars in surgeries and has gone under the knife approximately 112 times. However, despite achieving the uncanny look of this doll she has received more backlash than acceptance for her new outward appearance. Many have described her look as being creepy and unrealistic yet, the famous doll is still considered to be a body icon around the world. As previously emphasized, Mattel Corporations, the creators of the Barbie doll, are also the creators of the stereotype, the perfect body, the ideal woman. Furthermore, if a Barbie doll is considered the perfect version of a woman, a familiar impossibility, it is also to be found that many women are to spend their human lives in hopes of passing as a Barbie doll due to the psychological power of the uncanny.

This raises the question of what women gain by passing as the perfect woman, or Barbie; the answer is simply social acceptance. Mary Pritchard, Ph.D., is a body image expert at Boise State University, and she states, “Body image is part of the development of the self, which starts within the first year of life . . . usually between the ages of 3 and 5, you have an idea of what your body looks like. As you then get older, around 6 to 8, you already have an idea of whether or not your body meets the ‘standard’ or ‘ideal.”(Barnes) Therefore, between the ages of 3 and 8 are crucial years for girls to learn their body types and accept them. However, this is tarnished since this is also the age range that most girls get their very own Barbie doll. The ages we need to be teaching girls about their body type and what is best for them is thrown out the window when they are handed a doll with a set of impossible standards that has the allure of the uncanny. This visual and psychological influence makes young girls feel that they don’t fit the standard body type and make women work to gain such an impossibility.

Overall, it’s a balancing act between the innocent play between a young girl and her doll and implanting what could be a preconceived notion of who she should begin modeling herself after. In a study done back in 2014, “Almost 40% of children are thought to be dissatisfied with the way they look, and girls as young as five report weight concerns and express a desire to be thinner.” Based on how their Barbie dolls looked, these prepubescent girls who are still going through significant growth developments are struggling to resemble the body type of a grown woman with a nearly impossible form. The proportions of a Barbie doll “would occur in less than 1 in 100,000 adult women . . . her waist is 20cm smaller than a reference group of anorexic patients” (Yager). Even so, this is the body type girls envision from an age as young as five to be the perfect image of a woman, which underscores the unattainable body representation that Barbie presents to young girls. Although it’s been stated by the company multiple times that the proportions for the doll were merely a requirement for children to dress and undress her adequately, it directly furthered the body image crisis, which isn’t surprising given the psychological impact of the uncanny at play in this situation.

For Sigmund Freud, the definition of “uncanny” could be used to explain the unfamiliarity of something so familiar, and vice versa. Now while the main focus has been on the unattainable body representation that Barbie gives to women and how this effect is radiating from such a young age, this is no longer the only issue dolls have provided. In recent years, the American Girl doll corporation has begun producing dolls that look exactly like the young girl receiving it. Everything from skin tone to hair type and matching clothing, these dolls are built to resemble the girl in every aspect, in other words, to double the girl’s image. One would think this would fix the issue, right? However, while this fixed the Barbie issue of inclusivity and even fixed the unattainable image provided by the famous doll, this created an even more of an issue with the uncanny. These dolls are the perfect image, or double, of the girls, which mean they show no problems with skin tones, their hair is never messy, and they are built to always look good in the clothes created specifically for them. Messy hair, skin imperfections, and ill-fitting clothes are a part of being human and are all everyday things seen in young girls.

On the one hand, Barbies created an unattainable body type, making girls wish to change the way they look to resemble the doll. On the other hand, girls are now feeling uncomfortable in their skin because these toys that are meant to resemble them but only show a perfect, unattainable version. It is, in a sense, putting her in competition with herself. This makes it evident that although Barbies have caused significant issues, they are not the only party at fault. Both the highly unfamiliar and the more familiar inanimate objects create an unreasonable societal standard for young girls and make it more of a struggle to self identify and discover who they want to be. The fact that dolls can create unrealistic standards and expectations in young girls further feeds into society’s “ideal woman” complex, and Freud’s theory of the uncanny plays no small role in the psychology behind this. Girls take one look at a doll and recognize a “perfect” woman’s or girl’s body, but when they look in the mirror, they see nothing but imperfections with their own, which leads many to a lifetime of dissatisfaction, eating disorders, and other issues as they seek to resolve the familiar with the unfamiliar, at least in part due to the psychological power of the uncanny.

Works Cited

Barnes, Zahra. “What’s Behind the Desire to Look Like a Human Doll?” Women’s Health, Women’s Health, 11 June 2019, www.womenshealthmag.com/life/a19981417/truth-about-body-dysmorphia/.

Evans, Caroline. “The Ontology of the Fashion Model.” Architectural Association School of Architecture, no. 63, 2011, http://crmintler.com/DD/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Ontology-of-the-Fashion-Model-Caroline-Evans-1.pdf.

Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny. Penguin Books, 2003.
Schneider, Sara K. “Body Design, Variable Realisms: The Case of Female Fashion Mannequins.” Design Issues, vol. 13, no. 3, 1997, pp. 5–18. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1511936. Accessed 14 Sept. 2020.

Yager, Zali. “Is Barbie Bad for Body Image?” The Conversation, 23 Aug. 2019, www. theconversation.com/is-barbie-bad-for-body-image-33725.