Text: Nicklas Hägen

MANUFACTURED BY the company Mattel, the Barbie doll has been controversial ever since it was launched on the market in March 1956. The main point of criticism is that it represents a distorted, idealised body image. For example, according to a study conducted at Helsinki University Hospital in Finland, Barbie would – were she human – lack the 17–22 per cent of body fat needed for a woman to become pregnant.

In 2016, three new shapes of the Barbie doll were introduced; a petite, a tall and a curvy.
“It was high time to make some other versions of Barbie after 57 years. But the curvy one is still not particularly plump. A more important point is that Mattel makes the dolls in various colours, so that not all are white,” says Harriet Silius, Professor Emerita of Women’s Studies at Åbo Akademi.

“At the same time, it’s important to point out that it’s not Barbie that’s causing eating disorders. The ideal of slimness is present in films, fashion, music, on YouTube – virtually everywhere. There is a connection between this ideal and the fact that so many people want to be thinner than they are. This affects girls more often than boys, although there are also boys who suffer from the ideal of slimness. Boys aren’t allowed to be fat, either.”

But boys may be big?
“They may be tall and are preferred to be … normal. That’s the difference; girls are explicitly expected to be thin.”

Is there a symbolic value in Barbie having been given new forms?
“Mattel has been heavily criticised for decades, possibly from the very launch of the Barbie doll, and finally they have listened to the critical voices. It is a toy depicting an adult woman and at last they have realised that not everybody looks like that. Probably the company wants to reach out to the grown-ups who have previously refused to buy Barbie dolls.”

“On the other hand, Barbie is so exaggerated that the children, and today we’re talking about quite small children, who play with the dolls hardly regard them as representations of real people.”

It is obvious that we have a problematic view of bodies. Is there any positive progress taking place in this area?
“No, I don’t think there is. Or at least very little. Vogue Magazine has stopped using models with eating disorders and Italy, Spain and France have introduced a minimum weight for models. So in some respects some small things are happening, but this is just one magazine of many, and just a few countries out of many.”

“New movements have also emerged that advocate a round and happy body form. People’s body weight in rich, western countries is continually on the increase; this is the trend we see. But relatively little is actually happening as a response. Eating disorders are treated as individual illnesses, where the reason for the illness is not necessary individual, but can depend on the environment. We are surrounded by a slimness ideal and not only that; we are expected not only to have a perfect body, but to be perfect also in all other respects. This can prove too much for people of a certain age.”

This is not only a question of the relationship between child and parent?
“No, we mustn’t assume that eating disorders are caused by parents or others close to the person. External factors are much more significant.”

Having been Professor of Women’s Studies, currently Gender Studies, since the chair was established at Åbo Akademi University in 1996, Harriet Silius retired in 2016. Her retirement lecture attracted an audience twice as big as had been expected, so the event quickly had to be relocated to another auditorium.