Barbie was about a plastic doll with big boobies’, said Jo Koy at the Golden Globes. As Greta Gerwig answered, Jo Koy is ‘not wrong’. But Barbie, the timeless symbol of girlhood, has been more than just a toy: she’s been a source of joy and controversy, sparking conversations about women’s bodies, empowerment, and societal standards. Barbie spreads idealistic beauty standards and, as the movie demonstrates, she can alter the way girls look at their bodies. Barbie is designed to strike the perfect balance between being sexualised enough and being respectable, but what impact does it have on young girls?

Is Barbie empowering me?

Barbie’s journey has been one of evolution, responding to societal critiques that initially labelled her physique as unrealistic. Over the years, she has transformed to embrace diversity, introducing dolls of different ethnicities, body shapes, and professional roles. We discover many of the roles she has had in the film: Barbie has been a pilot, a mother, a builder, a teacher, and a president – she has done all of it.

Despite these positive changes, debates persist about how Barbie’s representation might impact body image and the empowerment of young girls. Critics argue that Barbie’s look perpetuates narrow beauty standards, potentially influencing negative body perceptions among the young. While Barbie has evolved over time, many argue that this change hasn’t been happening just to make women feel empowered. The Barbie film directly confronts this issue, featuring a scene where the idea of an ‘ordinary Barbie’ is initially dismissed by Mattel’s CEO, only to be embraced when the potential for profitability is highlighted.

Navigating beauty standards

In March 2024, Peter Lang Publishing Group is publishing my first book, titled Bra Wars: The Struggle against Decency. Inside, I discuss Western societal norms regulating breasts and the pressure to conform. I explore how the smooth appearance created by the bra, which conceals the nipples, has come to be the preferred model, due to its conformity to norms of decency in Western society. Showing the nipple, or going braless, is viewed as overly sexualised and thus dangerous.

Barbie’s design is interestingly the perfect example of this model. As I discuss in my book, women’s breasts have long been regulated by decency norms, and the Barbie doll confirms this ideal: breasts should be high, big, round, and have a perfectly smooth shape. Her design raises critical questions about what is considered ‘appropriate’ content for children and its potential impact on evolving societal norms. But the concealed nipples go beyond a design choice: they symbolise a broader societal unease with the depiction of authentic women’s bodies. They also contribute to a potential sense of shame surrounding the body from an early age.

The idealised form that Barbie represents – with an impossible figure, long legs and thigh gap – represents the societal expectation for women to prioritise their appearance in a culture where their primary role often seems focused on being visually appealing, but in the ‘right’ way. Women have to strike the perfect balance between being ‘sexy enough’ but not ‘too sexy’, being respectable, but not being prudish. And this perfect balance is what Barbie is all about: an ‘ideal’. A poignant monologue in the Barbie film, delivered by Gloria, explores this societal pressure on women to be ‘perfect’ and the conflicting expectations they face.

The intentional omission of the nipple on the Barbie doll points to the balancing act toy manufacturers face in creating products that resonate broadly without causing controversy. The concept of decency tied to Barbie’s breasts invites a closer examination of cultural norms and how the reinforcement of traditional ideals in seemingly insignificant ways like toys, ads, movies or books may impact societal perceptions.

Empowering through imagination

Barbie’s enduring strength lies in her capacity to inspire imaginative play. Many people fondly recall spending countless hours crafting stories and adventures with their Barbie dolls. This facet of play serves as a catalyst for creativity and empowerment, allowing children to dream beyond societal expectations. Barbie, in her various forms, has been an inspiration for many girls who felt like they would grow up to be like her.

Barbie’s legacy is complex, touching on issues of women’s bodies, empowerment, and societal norms. While her concealed nipples provide a starting point for these discussions, they represent only a fraction of a more extensive narrative. Barbie, in her own right, reflects our evolving perspectives on beauty and power. She shapes the way girls and, later, women, see their bodies and what they internalise they should look like. Engaging in open conversations about these topics contributes to reshaping perceptions and fostering a more inclusive environment for generations to come.

Bra Wars delves into the complex interplay between femininity, bras, and societal expectations and invites you to redefine your understanding of what it means to be ‘decent’ in a patriarchal society. Based on interviews with women today, my book contributes to this conversation, drawing connections between societal expectations and the representation of women’s bodies in popular culture, with dolls like Barbie conditioning the way girls look at themselves.

Bra Wars: The Struggle Against Decency

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