Home Beauty Black Women, Body Image And Our Relationship To The Life-Sized Barbie

Black Women, Body Image And Our Relationship To The Life-Sized Barbie

by Erika Nicole Kendall

I just… cannot:

Barbie’s not just a doll.

In Galia Slayen’s hands, the iconic blond plaything has morphed into a life-size representation of what an eating disorder looks like.

Four years ago, Slayen, then a student at Lincoln High School in Portland, Ore., built what she believed to be a life-size version of the doll she played with as a child as part of the first National Eating Disorders Awareness Week.

“I was at a friend’s house and her mom’s an artist so there were all these art supplies around,” Slayen told TODAY.com. “She helped with the actual proportions.”

The Barbie stands about 6 feet tall with a 39″ bust, 18″ waist and 33″ hips. She is made of wood, chicken wire and papier mache, and is dressed in a size 00 skirt that was a remnant from Slayen’s one-year bout with anorexia.

“I’m not blaming Barbie [for my illness] — she’s one small factor, an environmental factor,” Slayen said. “I’m blond and blue-eyed and I figured that was what I was supposed to look like. She was my idol. It impacted the way I looked at myself.”

The goal in creating Barbie’s likeness was to start conversation. “Talking about eating disorders is taboo to many people, and this made people talk about it,” Slayen said. “It’s a shocking image. A lot of people have seen it, and it’s started debates,” she said, particularly after she wrote about it for the Huffington Post. “Her proportions are not 100 percent correct, but her look is not invalid.”

“As a pop-cultural icon, Barbie is often used as art to express one’s own personal opinions and views,” a Mattel spokesperson said in an email. “Girls see female body images everywhere today and it’s critical that parents and caregivers provide perspective on what they are seeing. It’s important to remember that Barbie is a doll who stands 11.5 inches tall and weighs 7.25 ounces — she was never modeled on the proportions of a real person.”

Slayen introduced her Barbie to her college, Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., at its first National Eating Disorders Awareness Week this year.

At the school, there were different activities for each day of the week, including covering mirrors with pictures, facts and information on eating disorders, something Slayen had done at her high school. However, “there were just eight mirrors in my high school. There were over 300 in my college,” she said with a sigh.

One day, when my daughter caught me with my tape measure measuring for a dress, she asked me to measure her.I playfully obliged her.

My four year old’s waist is exactly eighteen inches.

Let that marinate for a minute.

(Don’t worry about the toddler. I wrapped the tape around her waist and promptly told her “Yep! Perfect!” She flexed her little toddler muscles and scurried off to go harass our dog.)

The video from Galia’s appearance on The Today Show is included below. Pay special attention to the Black woman at the 1:35 mark who says “This is what the media portrays. This is what counts as beautiful.”

It’s not lost on me that a Black woman stood next to a life-sized interpretation of a blonde haired, blue eyed toy and told a news outlet like Today that “this blonde haired, blue eyed, pale skinned, big breasted, toddler-sized-waist having woman is what you portray as beautiful, desired and appealing to me a woman of color who is the least able to ever look this way.”

I had a long conversation about this one – Black women and our relationship to Barbie. I don’t think it’s a monolithic one – I’m pretty sure it’s not, in fact – and I also think that the spectrum is wide and vast for a lot of us. Me offering up my own relationship to Barbie isn’t an arrogant attempt to say “You’re all like me!” but it is adding another side to it all.

To put it bluntly, I didn’t see Barbie in this way. Outside of simply being a toy that all the neighborhood girls came together to pool our collections and have the ultimate Barbie lifestyle party? Barbie did nothing for me. I think the fact that she was SO different from me and my everyday reality of inner-city Cleveland, that I couldn’t make the connection that Barbie was who I was to grow up emulating. Being a doctor, a pilot, a veterinarian, a wife, a super hero, a fashionista… having a vacation home, a convertible (that drives without her driving it!!!!!), a mobile home, a mansion… awesome friends (complete with a token Black friend that, funny enough, only one of us owned and none of us played with), great male friends and boyfriends? It felt like awesome overload.

While I’m certain that there’s a Kenneth-and-Mamie type correlation to be had here, I question whether or not that extended to body type. It’s obvious that many of us have internalized the “the blonde-haired-blue-eyed-pale-skinned women have what I want, so if I want what they have I should look like them” part of the dating/mating game, but does that extend to body type for us? If so, why? Why not? What does your relationship with Barbie look like, and did it affect your body image?

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meta April 19, 2011 - 9:48 AM

Got lucky in that my mom was pretty adament that my sister and I didn’t get white dolls. We had plenty baby dolls but very few barbies. The four we did have were white and black. For the most part it wasn’t body image. It was hair and our barbie. Never occurred to us to want the body. Just the hair.
Even the ethnic barbies they have now have the same body. Crazy right. The facial features have changed some, but the body hasn’t.

Eva April 19, 2011 - 10:19 AM

I don’t know. To me Barbie was a doll, a doll that I could dress up and do her hair. I never thought it to be more than that. No one ever told me that I was supposed to look like her and I never thought that I should. Then again, I grew up in the 60’s and the media wasn’t in my face 24/7/365.

Serenity April 19, 2011 - 11:25 AM

My Mom was adamant that I not have a white doll too. Though I wasn’t a true doll kind of girl. I did have a Tuesday (Barbie’s Black friend) who’s hair changed from brown to red. That’s why I wanted her. I realized that playing Barbies or in my case, Tuesdays was no fun because my mother WOULD NOT buy all the paraphernalia that went with it. So once my brother pulled off Tuesday’s scalp (allegedly, by accident), it was over for me.

Freedom At Last June 4, 2012 - 1:02 PM

I know that doll! That’s Tuesday Taylor! I had her black version, Taylor Jones. I remember specifically requesting Taylor over Tuesday and wondering why Taylor had the white doll’s last name as her first name. (The questions kids ask.) I craved and demanded and got that doll, and I swiveled that head from black hair to red every minute of the week.

And then during my teens my parents had the temerity to act surprised when their black punk daughter changed her hair color – long before Eve, Rihanna, Lil Kim, or Nikki, or anybody else. This was 1981 – when you didn’t do that.

Chris December 23, 2014 - 11:15 AM

allegedly lol… I had a brother too.. those allegedly statements don’t hold their water haha!!!!!

CoCo April 19, 2011 - 5:11 PM

I agree. Barbie was just a doll to me, too.

I guess I never thought about it before, but I was a lucky little girl. I was surrounded by my mom and my aunties who were too too fly! And I wanted nothing more than to look like them and be like them. I wasn’t steddin’ Barbie. I was too busy wishing for my mom’s full lips and a mole over my eyebrow like Thelma from Good Times…

Carmel April 23, 2011 - 2:50 PM

I feel the same way. I was raised in the caribbean by my aunt and she was a tall woman with waist long black hair beautiful skin and confidence oozing out of her at 50+! I wanted to look just like her, alas I was not bestowed her mane. But I have similar features. My mother was this “grimelle”, light skinned woman with slanted eyes with shoulder length hair; another beauty! I liked playing with the barbies and I did have some screwed up concepts of race, but in terms of body image, the women in my family were the bees’ knees! And I wanted to look like them. Even when I think of the women outside of my family I thought of as beautiful, they were all dark-skinned, full lips, full hips women with a wicked sense of fashion and who wore make up! LOL Barbie was my plaything. Not a role model.

meta April 19, 2011 - 11:46 AM

I agree ladies. We didn’t start getting the kind of hard in your face “your ugly” propaganda tik the mid 90’s. Don’t get me wrong. We’ve always gotten hit with the hair and skin color issues since forever, but the media now is none stop. It’s sad.

osusmith April 19, 2011 - 1:13 PM

Yep, I concur. I had a mom that was ALL about the black dolls, so I’ve never owned a white one. As previously stated, Barbie was way off my radar in terms of role models. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t (and still don’t) have body image issues, but Barbie was not to blame.

Jeannine April 19, 2011 - 1:20 PM

Barbie was the only doll I played with! My mom didn’t like that I went toward the white dolls. My actual favorite was not regular Barbie but her Hawaiian friend who was not so “white” and had brown hair. I have no color complex but being a very pale light skinned black woman I wanted one that looked a little like me and black Barbie was very dark. Black Barbie was my girlfriend, the Hawaiian one looked more like me so when I played she was my alter ego. I liked the fact that we had a black Barbie, but I remember none of my friends wanting to play with her either. It had nothing to do with her being dark, because many of my friends were dark too. I think it was simply because she was not that attractive. Just being honest, but she looked like they took the white one with the blond hair and blue eyes and dipped her in dark brown paint! They did nothing to adjust her facial features so she looked a little funny. Seriously, how many black people looked like that? She is much prettier now, and I own one! I have a gorgeous chocolate Barbie doll from the model collection, called the Black Label collection.

For me, I never cared about her body or even her hair, I knew it was different than mine but I looked at it all as fantasy and not what I was supposed to look like. I was actually AMAZED at the sheer awesomeness of her life that you described Erika. Barbie was the only doll I liked because she had jobs, ambition, money, and FUN! She wasn’t locked into any one category, she could do anything and that is what I got from Barbie, a woman that could do anything she wanted!

I totally agree with what the Mattel spokesperson said. It is our job to teach our kids that they are beautiful and that Barbie and the rest are just dolls to play with. We should never try to be like something that is not real and Barbie is not real. I know I always understood that. They have a line called S.I.S (so in style) which is a collection of African-American Barbie dolls that range in shades so now at least you can get a black Barbie that is not only one color. I won’t discuss the stereotypes I have seen in this line because I actually still like it and well, they tried! A Barbie fan until I die, and I understand that they don’t get it right all the time!

Kerri April 19, 2011 - 1:44 PM

I took one look at that life-sized barbie doll and thought, “gee that looks like virtually every female comic book superhero!”

Try these images on for size:


Not to mention posts like this one below that routinely rank female comic characters according to how sexy and hot they are:


So, not only are young girls being introduced to impossible body images thanks to Barbie and her friends, but also young boys are encouraged by the comics they read and the cartoons they watch to view these impossible dimensions as ideal and desirable.

Danielle June 13, 2011 - 8:25 AM

Girl- you are so right about these comic books. And it’s the video games and the anime cartoons too.
But then we get into a bigger ‘feminist’ argument…about how females are portrayed in society. And the fact that strong women (comic book heroes, video game female heroes) look like Lara Croft (Angelina Jolie) and not Serena Williams.
The fact that if you’re a strong woman kicking butt, you have to look over sexualized with your boobs hanging out your shirt to prove the point that you’re still ‘feminine’.

Daphne April 19, 2011 - 1:53 PM

I had a Barbie, but I definitely never connected to her in a body image sort of way. She was one doll among a few I had.

To be honest, any body image issues I had were related to the real world – having slimmer friends, most of whom were black, and nothing to do with this aggregate, “blonde-haired and blue-eyed is the standard of beauty” concept that I always read about online. But I’m sure it depends on your environment. For example, I went to a majority white high school, but the blacks and whites tended to self-segregate, for the most part. Maybe if my friends were white instead of black, I might have had more racialized body image issues. As it stands, I think I was shielded from the pathology of that.

That’s not to say I never internalized the dominant culture, but I didn’t lament over not meeting a particular beauty ideal. I had white dolls and black dolls, and I don’t *remember* really thinking of them in racialized terms: black and white. My favorite doll was a black Cabbage Patch girl, lol.

Tracie G., The Brown Skin Lady April 19, 2011 - 3:45 PM

Okay, so I’m glad you shared this, because it’s reminiscent of my own experiences with Barbie. I don’t know if it was logic or what, but I don’t know that I ever looked at my dolls as someone I was to emulate physically…perhaps because it was pretty damn clear to me that I wouldn’t be able to do that, nor did I want to. From my time playing with Barbie, I learned I could do and/or be whatever it was I wanted to be–a Doctor, Teacher, mother, wife…and while maybe I did see myself to some degree in Barbie growing up it was a future rendition, which never, with all the coke-bottle shapely women I had in my family growing up, seemed unattainable or unrealistic. It might’ve also helped that most of my Barbie’s were black; however, even if they weren’t, in my eyes Barbie was a woman, and I was a kid…so it never occurred to me to make that comparison! What I DID gravitate to was the fact that one of my Barbies was an ASTRONAUT…and how cool was THAT?! Coming equipped with a glittery purple astrosuit & silver helmet, my Barbie was a welcome addition to kick-off my exposure to the Black Girl power movement of the late 80s-early 90s, and to this day I’m thankful to Mattel for introducing me to her.

Ladi Ohm April 19, 2011 - 4:02 PM

I had tons of Barbies growing up… black ones, white ones, collectables (actually, my mom still has those) and I never thought of them as an example of what I wanted to look like. They were my first clothing models, and that was just about it. Thanks to those clothes and accessories being so expensive, I learned how to use a sewing machine. I did want lighter hair because the dolls in the Mattel ‘Kenya’ series all had pretty shades of brown, but to be honest, none of those dolls had much of a butt… and well, I’ve always had too much ‘junk in the trunk’ to aspire to that body type.

Chelsea April 26, 2011 - 12:20 AM

Before I get into my comment, I want to say I’m extremely encouraged by finding this blog. I’ve just started my own weight loss journey and general renegotiation of food/lifestyle/body image, and for me, this blog is a really healthy space where positive and probing discussion about all these issues and more, is finally happening..

The Barbie discussion is particularly interesting to me because I have been kind of indoctrinated with the idea petite white woman “look” is the only way to look to be beautiful, and I think it has a lot to do with Barbie. Personally, I didn’t play with Barbies growing up, but all of my white friends (who ended up having the bodies I coveted), did. So in this discussion, I wonder if we’re failing to identify that there’s probably a link between a white woman’s ideal (Barbie), however close she gets to that size/proportion in real life (via eating disorder or not), and then our real-life examples of women who are as close to “perfect” as humanly possible, and adored for their looks. We can all identify the cycle from there — the models, actresses, etc. who flood the media and set standards of beauty that are also unrealistic and oppressive. They say that without a fixed point to move towards human beings are generally unable to walk a straight line. Is it possible that without the early fixation on Barbie/thinness, (at ages when we’re learning about the world and generally aren’t good gauges of reality), we’d never idolize that “ideal” later in life?

I can’t help but think maybe this relates to racial dynamics of adults, as well. No, maybe some of us didn’t see the point in playing with the Black Barbies or didn’t own them even though we are people of color, but doesn’t that almost resemble what would be the results of the Doll test, but in a more obscure way maybe? Does that maybe plant the idea that the non-white dolls are insignificant? That we, as brown women could be insignificant? That idea could then start us on the race towards thin whiteness that probably involves a lot of self-loathing, maybe some skin lightening, unhealthy dieting, and a general dissatisfaction and disappointment in ourselves for not being able to pull a Cinderella and magically transform ourselves. It sounds a lot like a fantasy transformation. Something a child would think of… Scary to think that as children we could believe these things to be possible, but this myth is never debunked — instead it’s validated and continuously told as we grow into adults with life-sized Barbies in pageants, magazines, billboards, movies, etc.

I think I’m rambling a bit, but I would definitely say that Barbie has more than a negligible impact on standards of mainstream beauty for women of any race. It’s interesting that the reaction to hearing that Erika didn’t play with Barbies was “me either” and not, “I didn’t even know what Barbies were until…”. Whether we grow up playing with them or not, we know what they look like. We get enough of a glimpse to at least get a silhouette in our minds, and maybe that’s just enough to skew our whole perception of what beauty should be.

Danielle June 13, 2011 - 8:15 AM

I get your point Chelsea, it makes sense! I didn’t play with Barbies either because I didn’t have any. If I did see one , it wasn’t like ‘Oh I need to be blonde blue eyed and skinny!’.

With that said, I didn’t feel ‘fat’ till I was around girls who made a big deal about weight. In fact I can clearly remember a time, when being called ‘skinny’ was an insult. And I can remember the point in time (during college, being around more white girls and interacting with them) when being called skinny was like the best compliment ever.
And to be quite honest, it wasn’t just an issue with weight, it was being the ‘fat black woman’.

So yea, I may not have directly been affected by Barbie, but she has affected many white women, which have in turn affected what the perceptions of weight are.

Latoya J. June 13, 2011 - 8:13 PM

I like you saw barbie for what I aspired to be when I grew up and that was like Theresa. Her light skinned buddy with pretty air, brown eyes, and in my imagination a big booty. I didn’t like the black barbie because I thought she was ugly…the irony in this is that my lighter skinned sister always played with her. Barbie never affected my image because I was always plus sized but I was never light skinned if you catch my drift.

Eni October 16, 2011 - 8:27 PM

I had Barbies (actually, Christie, the black one) growing up, but I never really played with them. I was into video games and Hot Wheels (still into video games, for the record). Most of my problems with body image were (are?) based on other things–movies, music videos, and the magically super skinny girls who sat next to me in class on a regular basis.

Alia December 26, 2011 - 6:17 AM


Honestly, Barbie to me, at the beginning, was a bland toy to play with. I’d play with it, but get bored. Now, though, looking back at it with some percpective, I see the dangers of Barbie and the “manly” toys.

For example, no matter the skin color, race, etc., Barbies have:

– certain eye/ hair colors: have you seen a ginger Haired barbie? Or a hazel-eyed Barbie?

– ALWAYS straight hair- can I blame her for my fight against my wavy hair?

– the thin waist (what about us curvy women?), flatish chest

————- For the boys, it’s the abs, overinflated muscles, etc.

The important thing is absolutely to remind our children that they’re just toys, not real, so they don’t get unrealistc/ dangerous thoughts about their body weight.

For me, I’d ban it from the house (along with TV- if they can’t watch it, they can’t want it) and invest in a karate class for them instead 😉

Annette January 23, 2012 - 3:36 PM

Erika thank you for this Blog you ask questions that I haven’t really thought about and I feel it’s a way for us to heal in addition to exercise and food control some of the issues we have about image.

Well thank god me and my sisters wasn’t into dolls we never got any of the Barbie Dolls..that would be another issue to work through. Maybe I was so busy trying to handle my emotional anxiety, and issues within my family. Also back in the day having family friends judge you that you will “PASS” as attractive whatever that means, wasn’t an issue just my size. Now that I think about it it’s kinda pervie to have male family members who could be called “uncle” comment on my body. That my parents didn’t set them straight is kinda strange considering I was way underage. My issue was more with the acceptance of what my parents felt was attractive and acceptable since I lived with them and heard the nasty comments daily.

I have to say I got more heat from my family members than from outsiders since family friends would complain about my weight to my parents and then it would trickle down to me. Especially since my mother was considered slim and beautiful with a model type figure, she looked like a younger Dionne Warwick slim and hot in her days. So I was a disappointment since I didn’t reflect “positively” on her image.

The issue with Barbie came about when I started to work with caucasian men. That was when I learned they like a women with breasts and sticks for legs. Since I wasn’t attracted to causacian men and also didn’t like the image of the women they were attracted to, I didn’t feel a need to make myself into that image. I was fully grown with the image my mother would like for me which was more like Vanessa Williams, Whitney Houston, Diana Ross, beautiful black women who were accepted into mainstream society.

Kaija October 9, 2012 - 1:27 PM

I didn’t play much with Barbies when I was a kid (I was the tomboy who preferred my model horses), but my sister had them and it WAS fun to dress them up and fix their hair. When I did decide I wanted a Barbie for Christmas one year, I asked for the black Barbie because I thought she was prettier plus she had dark hair (I’m a white girl with olive skin and dark hair; my sister has very white skin and blond hair…each of us takes after one of our parents). I was glad that there was a choice! As a grownup feminist, I’d rather see a more realistic range of body/racial/ethnic types for dolls because I’m very uncomfortable with a LOT of the beauty and image messaging that girls and women receive.

Citly February 6, 2013 - 6:10 PM

Barbie was mildly traumatic. As a dark kid in a primarily Anglo area, everyone “pretty” was white and skinny, and preferrably blond – but I was none of those things, not by a long shot.
When I hit puberty, hey, I wanted the big boobs! I wanted to be, if not “pretty”, then “sexy”. Turns out though, small boobs and big hips run in my family. So, my body proportions were backwards, too. F my life…
Long story short… I’ve struggled with my weight for most of my life, and I’ve had bulimic tendencies for a while. Right now, I’m working on just loving my bod as is, while taking better care of myself, physically, mentally and emotionally.
There comes a point when you realize that a lot of what you’ve internalized is wrong. It’s not about sizes, or being skinny. It’s about being healthy and feeling good.
So what if I’m wearing size 9 jeans, at best? I’m still a long-distance runner. So what if I have less boobs than my teenage niece? I can jump and dance, and not worry about them going all over the place. We all have our body quirks, and we should all feel proud of them.

Kitty September 28, 2013 - 12:35 PM

I had a lot of Barbies as a kid and still have many of them that I hope to pass on to my kids. The only Barbies you could get when I was a kid were the blonde-blue-eyed ones, I recently bought my first red-haired doll and my first dark-skinned doll and I’m looking out for other non-blonde dolls so my kids will have a really great collection. Although I am blonde and blue-eyed myself, I’ve never thought “This is what I should look like” or that everyone should look like her. I just liked brushing her hair and wanted all of her clothes.

Cat October 14, 2014 - 4:56 PM

We played with American Girl dolls growing up.

One Christmas, our great grandmother gave each of us girls our first Barbie doll. I played with her for a while until I grew bored of her single outfit and delicate hollow head that kept popping off. Once I stopped playing with her my mother quietly collected her and the other barbies up and donated them to Goodwill. I didn’t feel particularly affected by her short presence in my life.

However, my younger sister recently admitted to me that once she had her barbie doll, she began to notice the difference between barbie and Kaya, her long-loved American girl doll. She said she used to seat Kaya in a corner facing the wall, punishing her for being too fat. My sister was six years old at the time. That’s all I have to say about that.


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