By Liz Dwyer
What do Barbies eat for breakfast? If you’re Ukrainian model Valeria Lukyanova, a self-described human Barbie doll (covered in the Daily Mail two years ago, and more recently on Jezebel), all you do is inhale, exhale, and let the sun’s rays shine on your face — “meal” complete. To less delusional minds, Lukyanova’s so-called Breathatarian light and air “eating” regimen merely appears to be anorexia dressed up with a bow.
Lukyanova’s Breathatarian regimen is undoubtedly concerning, but press pause and rewind to the fact that this is only one of several stories about a woman going to great lengths — either through plastic surgery, extreme dieting, hair weaving, and makeup machinations — to turn herself into Barbie. So far, though, none of the women who’ve made headlines for becoming “Barbies” have been black.
Given 21st century beauty standards, no race or ethnicity of woman has a lock on body confidence. Black women undoubtedly suffer because of these beauty standards. In one of her many recent acceptance speeches prior to her Oscar win, Lupita Nyong’o admitted that as an adolescent she’d prayed to God to make her skin lighter, reminding us that black women are not impervious to deep insecurities.
That said, in my experience, it is true that throughout my life I have heard more white women than black women talking about being too fat — which makes me wonder whether becoming as thin as Barbie is something most black women would ever aspire toward, let alone have the desire to do.
Like many black women, I played with Barbie dolls when I was a kid. I dressed them up, brushed their hair, dissed the fact that they couldn’t stand on their own, and whispered to my friends that they weren’t actually anatomically correct — Barbie did not have a vagina. But for most of my childhood I didn’t have a Barbie of my own.
My mom wasn’t a Barbie fan. Instead, she’d buy me these Barbie-style knockoff dolls that were black. They came with the kind of short hairdos the black women I knew in real life wore. I loved those dolls, but I still wanted a Barbie—not because I wanted to stroke her blond hair or admire her blue eyes or her body type. I wanted a Barbie because all my friends had one and I felt left out.
My mom didn’t care about that. She was the kind of mom that would buy me Wranglers instead of designer jeans and tell me to be grateful I even had clothes. When she finally broke down and bought me an actual Barbie, I was 12-years-old and in eighth grade. I’m convinced she caved because she didn’t want to admit that her little girl needed a bra instead of a Barbie.
Finally having a Barbie didn’t make me feel stressed about my appearance or my size. I didn’t need Barbie to tell me I wasn’t white enough, that my hair wasn’t long or straight enough, and that I wasn’t thin enough. The real-life white girls — and boys — at my school had been sending me that message for years.
My self-esteem saving grace was that I’d go come from school and be surrounded by women with curves. Much is made of the black community’s love for a woman with more bounce to the ounce. I’m not talking socially acceptable Beyoncé curves, either. I saw women with real jiggle: back fat, rolls on bellies, and cellulite dimples, and I saw them receiving sincere compliments — with a thesaurus-full of synonyms for “beautiful” thrown in. Then I’d see relatives hugging my mom during the holidays while telling her, “You look like you put on a little weight — you’re lookin’ good!”
Too many white women I know didn’t get to have that kind experience. Take body shaming to extremes and perhaps you get women trying to enhance their Barbie-ness by “eating” air and light.
Sure, the curvy appreciation within the black community can have negative extremes, too. Either we tend not to recognize that black woman can have eating disorders because we interpret anorexia and bulimia as a “white” thing, or we refer to the kind of obesity that affects our health and ability to comfortably function as being “big boned.” Still, the full-on open praise of normal body sizes undoubtedly protects many black women from feeling like we have to become Barbie in order to be loved, desired, accepted and appreciated.
That body confidence serves me well now that I live in Los Angeles, a town where if you’re not clear about who you are, a stroll down the Sunset Strip can crush you. I try to make healthy choices because I feel better when I do, not because I’m worried about being labeled as fat. I’m a vegetarian. I exercise every day — I’ve even run seven marathons. But am I trying to turn myself into Barbie? Girl, please.
I can hear you yelling, “OMG, what about Nicki Minaj?”
There’s no doubt Nicki’s managed to milk the Barbie thing all the way to the bank. But who out there actually believes Minaj wants to be Barbie? Just like Madonna changed her image with every album, Nicki’s Barbie phase didn’t appear to have much to do with her self-esteem, and will likely be downplayed once it stops selling records and fans need a new gimmick to latch onto.
Whether Breathatarianism is a gimmick Lukyanova’s trying to use to get attention remains to be seen. But someone should tell her that starving herself could interfere with her Barbie pastime. Funeral Barbie — complete with an embalming table and a pink satin lined coffin –probably isn’t on Mattel’s production list.