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Self image is a tricky issue – but it’s not Barbie’s fault

Here it is again—people are complaining that Barbie promotes an unhealthy body image for young girls, and someone has suggested a plus-size Barbie doll with a thicker midsection, plumper thighs and not a chin…not a double chin…but a triple chin.

Yes, a triple chin—obviously, the only alternative to being overly thin.

This is not a new argument, and as with most things, it’s being overly simplistic to blame a doll for how girls feel about themselves.

In fact, haven’t people been concerned for years about a burgeoning weight problem among younger Americans? Maybe thigh gaps and xylophone ribs aren’t exactly healthy, but for an increasingly pudgy populace maybe some could use a little nudge back toward the thinner side of things.

I realize it sounds like I’m making light of what, to many, is a very serious issue. I know there are girls and women (and men and boys, too) who look in the mirror and are always dissatisfied with how they look. They could always be thinner, they could always be better looking and they will never reach what they consider to be the ideal for their age, gender and/or body type.

But Barbie isn’t to blame. For the record, I’ve read that Barbie has a wasp-like waist for a reason—it’s because at her most basic level, she’s a fashion model. She exists to wear the latest trends in clothing. But because she’s a fraction the size of a real person, her clothes are also small in stature. But while jeggings, wedges or whatever here-today-gone-tomorrow fashion can be easily downsized to fit Barbie, one thing that is difficult or impossible to miniaturize is elastic. So for Barbie’s clothes to fit, her waist must be thin to accommodate elastic. With a “real” midsection, her clothing would make her look quite a bit more rubenesque. So the real problem is that people judge Barbie not because she’s thin, but because she’s not wearing clothes as intended.

But that’s not really the issue. Barbie is not really the issue. Was it Barbie who caused Abercrombie and Fitch to only choose models who appear to be in the terminal stages of a serious heroin habit? Was it Barbie who led an alarmingly-large number of people to decide that spindly legs were the standard of beauty? If anything, I would suspect that Barbie is an effect rather than a cause. She’s following the trend, not setting it.

Western culture has almost always looked toward pop culture for its ideals. Movie stars, athletes and singers influence young people of both genders in everything from their hairstyles, to their wardrobe, to their fragrances and makeup. Sometimes an established star can even lead fans to mimic their musical or movie tastes.

But even that only goes so far. Pop culture, whether it’s in the former of Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga or a Barbie doll, might be able to influence youngsters in small ways, but it takes a very dedicated and organized effort over a long period of time to have any lasting effect. A hairstyle or clothing brand is much easier to promote—and more likely to be adopted—than something as intrinsic as body image.

That’s not to say there’s NO influence. Obviously, some people take their idols more seriously, and a trend sometimes catches and holds on for years. In such cases, there might be real lasting effects, but for most things the fashion comes and goes as quickly as the top 10 pop charts and this week’s box office.

But most people are more resistant to change than that. They may pay attention to the Kardashians or Grand Theft Auto, but most people aren’t going out and mimicking in real life what they see on the screen.

And while a little girl may dream of Barbie, I’d bet her dreams have more to do with a pink sports car, a glittery dress and a tall, dark Ken, and less to do with thin arms and a tiny waist.

Make no mistake—popular culture places a lot of imaginary demands on everyone, no matter their gender, age or body type. Reality shows suggest we all deserve a little bit of fame, and we’re shown that if you can’t be attractive, you should at least be thin. If you can’t be thin, you should be funny.

I’m no psychologist. I’m just an observer of popular culture, and I try to pay attention to how pop culture affects at least the people around me. Some deal with the pressure better than others, but what we try to stress to our kids is that everyone is different but we should all try to do the best with what we have, rather than envy or emulate what others have.

Maybe Barbie does play a part, after all. Maybe she does present kids with an unrealistic model. But it’s our job as parents to make sure our kids know that Barbie is just a doll—she’s not a goal.

By Eric Copeland •

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