Faculty Blog: Barbie is a Swimsuit Model

Charlotte Markey is an associate professor of psychology at Rutgers-Camden.

Charlotte Markey is an associate professor of psychology at Rutgers-Camden.

Two of my least favorite cultural phenomena have joined forces:  Barbie and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.  For its 50th anniversary edition, Sports Illustrated has chosen to feature a variety of iconic models in swimsuits ranging from Christie Brinkley to Tyra Banks.  Also included in this issue of real life bathing beauties with impressive measurements is the plastic beauty queen, Barbie.  (She’s wearing a black and white stripe one-piece bathing suit; see her here).

Although one of the models (Emily DiDonato) featured in the issue suggests that, “it works, totally” to have Barbie grace the same pages that she does, I find her inclusion in the magazine disquieting and even a little weird.  First, it is weird that Sports Illustrated even has a swimsuit issue.  After all, wearing a string bikini is not a sport.  If you want to swim or participate in anything resembling a sport, you’re going to need more coverage or you risk getting kicked out of the community pool.  I understand that most readers of Sports Illustrated are men and men like to look at beautiful women in bikinis.  However, this isn’t the 1970s.  I find it hard to believe that Elle Macpherson in a swimsuit is more tantalizing than the wonders of digital flesh that are just a mouse click away.

But, back to Barbie.  Barbie is not a real person (duh!).  If she were a real person she would actually be unattractive with freakish proportions scientists have estimated would approximate 5’7” tall, a 32 inch bust, a 16 inch waist, and 29 inch hips.  Even with breast implants, liposuction, and a good corset, most women are simply not going to be able to achieve these proportions (never mind the complete hairlessness).  And yet, Barbie dolls are among the first “adult” dolls that little girls play with.   For many girls (and boys), they become the measuring stick with which to assess real women. Some research even suggests that girls who play with Barbie dolls report lower body esteem and a greater interest in being thin. 1

Fortunately, I’m not the only one who objects to conceptualizing Barbie as a child’s doll as well as a sex symbol and swimsuit model.  Nickolay Lamm has recently created a Barbie-like doll that looks like a real woman, a doll he’s called the Lammy.  Now this is a doll I can comfortably buy for my young daughter; she looks human, yet attractive and capable of doing more than modeling or cleaning up after Ken.  I suspect that the Lammy won’t make it to the next edition of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.  But, perhaps, that’s the way it should be?

Lest you think that I take my work too seriously, I’ll admit that girls can play with Barbies and still grow up to be well-adjusted women.  I’m also guessing that the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue does not inflict any serious psychological damage; it’s pretty tame compared to other images of women widely available these days online.  However, it is ironic, sad, and a little ridiculous that “fake” Barbie appears in a swimsuit issue next to “real women” who have been cosmetically enhanced in a variety of ways and then digitally enhanced using programs such as Photoshop. Is this really what the image of sexually appealing women has become?  Fake, enhanced, and literally plastic.


1Dittmar, H., Halliwell, E., & Ive, S. (2006). Does Barbie make girls want to be thin? The effect of experimental exposure to images of dolls on the body image of 5 to 8 year old girls. Developmental Psychology, 42, 286-292. DOI: 10.1037/0012-1649.42.2.283

Charlotte Markey is an associate professor of psychology at Rutgers University-Camden.  This post originally appeared on her website.

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