By Diane L. Gibby M.D.
When Mattel announced last Thursday that it was giving the Barbie doll a new look, the news generated front page coverage in LA Times, USA Today, Time Magazine and was featured on news outlets around the country.
Barbie, Mattel’s best-selling blonde bombshell was having some “plastic’ surgery to give her a more realistic look or should I say ‘looks’.
Why all the attention to a doll’s new look? Because this doll is no ordinary plaything, but an American icon with die-hard devotees and vocal opponents. All this controversy boils down to sensitivity about how women’s body images are presented culturally.
It is no surprise that body image is a preoccupation for many women. According to one American study, approximately 80-90% of women dislike their bodies. Some people think these numbers are this high due to unrealistic models of beauty that dolls like Barbie perpetuate.
Mattel claims that little girls do not emulate Barbie, they just play with her. In Barbie’s case, this may be true…because if the original were enlarged to life-like proportions her measurements would be 38-18-34. Even with plastic surgery and exercise this would be an unattainable — and certainly, undesirable — goal.
Body image is an individual’s perception of his/her physical self. It is the mental picture a person has of their body, as well as the individual’s associated thoughts, feelings, judgments, sensations, awareness and behavior. Body image is not a static concept. It is developed through interactions with others and the social world.
Thus, what society holds up as ideal is often what women strive for. Preferences for body shape vary over time and among all cultures. Historically, most societies have associated extra weight in women with desirable social status — an overt sign of wealth when food was not abundant. “Rubenesque” women were considered the epitome of femininity and beauty.
Because women today are inundated with beautiful faces and “perfect” bodies, we must strive to maintain a realistic and healthy body image. A healthy body image is evident when a person’s mental picture of her body is accurate, and her feelings, assessment and relationship toward her body are positive, confident and self-caring.
Healthy body image is more than the absence of struggles around food, weight or appearance. It is having the support and resources necessary to:
- Care for the body
- Find outlets for self-expression
- Develop confidence in one’s physical abilities and capacities
- Develop a positive self-concept
Women today have resources to help them resist negative environmental messages, the most important being education and the awareness that we are all unique individuals. Good nutrition and regular exercise helps to keep us both physically and mentally fit, while promoting a healthy body image. And sometimes cosmetic surgery is appropriate to help women feel better about their bodies and looks in general
Women who already have a healthy body image will likely benefit most from cosmetic surgery. Striving for improvement — not perfection — is the key. Women who have realistic expectations can greatly improve their body image with appropriate cosmetic surgery. Of course, before having any cosmetic surgery, you should discuss any questions or concerns, as well as your expectations, with your physician.
It’s not about looking like a Barbie doll or a runway model. It’s about looking and feeling comfortable in your own skin. Since a healthy body image is directly related to
self-esteem, it is important that a doll like Barbie is seen for what it is — a child’s toy. A perfect piece of plastic that has nothing to do with realistic expectations of women’s bodies, but kudos for Mattel for finally offering girls choices that represent the diversity and beauty of all women.