Barbie’s Lead Designer Defends Her Hyper-Real Proportions, We Cringe

"Barbie’s body was never designed to be realistic."

barbie proportionsWhen I was 10-years-old, I remember learning that my Aunt Kathy didn’t allow my young cousin to play with Barbie dolls. I thought it was oppression. “But every girl has a Barbie…..,” I thought to myself. Little did I know, I’d come to see that there was a method to my Aunt Kathy’s madness. In fact, looking back on my childhood, I’m sad that even if my mom had done the same, Barbie still would have had a considerable impression on it.

Barbie clocks in at 5’ 9” with a 36-inch bust, 18-inch waist and 33-inch hips. According to experts, that puts her at about 110 pounds. And let us not forget her platinum blonde hair and golden tanned skin. As an adult, I imagine Barbie’s creator to be “a bunch of judgmental creeps, celibate against their will,” in the words of Adam Driver. However, according to FastCo. Design’s Mark Wilson, who recently paid the Mattel factory a visit, Barbie’s lead designers were “nice, enthusiastic people who wanted to make kids happy and worked hard to do so.”

Wilson recently visited Mattel headquarters with intention of asking the questions on the mind of every person who’s seen what a ‘normal’ Barbie looks like. That he did, and the answers from Kim Culmone, vice president of Barbie design, are rife with poetic hoodwinks. Here are some of the most appalling excerpts:

Co.Design: What’s your stance on Barbie’s proportions?

Culmone: Barbie’s body was never designed to be realistic. She was designed for girls to easily dress and undress. And she’s had many bodies over the years, ones that are poseable, ones that are cut for princess cuts, ones that are more realistic.

It’s not a closed conversation?

No. Though there’s also the issue of heritage. This is a 55-year-old brand where moms are handing clothes down to their daughters, and so keeping the integrity of that is really important.

Everything may not always be able to fit every doll, but it’s important to me that the majority of it does, because that was my experience as a little girl. There’s an obligation to consistency. Unless for some reason in the future, there’s a real reason to change the body–because of either a design imperative or functional imperative — heritage is important to us.

Would you ever release a Barbie that was a more realistic proportion? Or could that not be a Barbie because the fashion wouldn’t be the same on her?

It would depend on the objective. So to me, there isn’t an objective to change the proportion of Barbie currently. And to little girls, they are putting themselves in that doll anyway. You have to remember that girls’ perceptions are so different than grown ups’ perceptions about what real is and what real isn’t, and what the influences are.

You don’t think there’s a body comparison going on when you’re a girl?

I don’t. Girls view the world completely differently than grown-ups do. They don’t come at it with the same angles and baggage and all that stuff that we do. Clearly, the influences for girls on those types of issues, whether it’s body image or anything else, it’s proven*, it’s peers, moms, parents, it’s their social circles.

When they’re playing, they’re playing. It’s a princess-fairy-fashionista-doctor-astronaut, and that’s all one girl. She’s taking her Corvette to the moon, and her spaceship to the grocery store. That is literally how girls play.

Following the interview, which you can read in full here, Wilson included the following statistic:

*A 2006 University of Sussex study concludes that thin dolls like Barbie “may damage girls’ body image, which would contribute to an increased risk of disordered eating and weight cycling.”

So, yes, it’s safe to say that I’m in Aunt Kathy’s camp on this matter.

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