Barbie (finally) gets a body makeover

 

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My daughter’s social studies teacher — an obviously brilliant former journalist — asks his students to take turns preparing newscasts for the class.

The kids peruse headlines in the newspaper or on the web and give a brief report, to expand their knowledge of the world.

It was my daughter’s turn again the other day, and giving me the rundown after school she asked, "Did you know they came out with new Barbies?"

I had seen reports about Mattel’s capitulation to reality (after six decades), but I didn’t interrupt.

"Curvy?" I supplied helpfully.

"Yes," she said, obviously relieved.

Those of us born in the shape of a certain fruit can only welcome this development.

I’ve never been militant on the Barbie front. I’ve kept my old dolls all these years and let my daughter play with them. We even bought a Princess Barbie (or four) when she was in her Disney phase. And a veterinarian Barbie.

Truth be told, the dolls weren’t my favorite pastime as a kid; I liked Barbie’s car and other accessories more. The fashion aspect isn’t really that much fun after you change the clothes once or twice anyway. My friends and I (and my nieces and daughter after that) had more fun with the "pretend" aspect, creating our own Barbie houses and furniture and inventing some imaginary storyline.

But I do remember feeling below par in the body type department as a kid because I was more "curvy" than Barbie and the girls on the pages of "Teen" magazine — or even my own skinny friends.

I "dieted" in high school (when I weighed what I can only dream about now) to try to fit into the jeans that everyone else wore.

Luckily I outgrew this insecurity — I now happily wear curvy jeans (with lycra) and boots marked "extra wide calf" — but it’s a serious self-esteem issue for many girls, as we now know.

When my daughter was younger I tried out alternative dolls with more realistic shapes and clothes, to counter Barbie’s influence. But they couldn’t match Barbie’s marketing pull, especially coupled with the magic of Disney. Even now, "Elsa" is the biggest-selling Barbie (if I hear "Let it Go" one more time I’m going to impale something).

Of course, Barbie has branched out before. My sister and I had a brunette Barbie, and a red-haired "Midge" who even had freckles. A black Barbie debuted in 1980, and Barbie had a black friend, "Christie," back in 1968. But they were essentially painted versions of the same white doll. It wasn’t until 2010 that Mattell came out with a line of black dolls with more culturally diverse facial features.

And they all had Barbie’s same impossible figure and high-heeled foot, which would send a normal human straight to an orthopedist. (Plus, the shoes always fell off.) Ken, and even Skipper, had much more sensible flat feet.

The new "Fashionista" Barbie dolls have ankles that actually allow her to wear flats.

They also come in a variety of shapes, skin tones, hair colors (even blue) and facial features.

Not only does the new line better reflect our reality, but Mattel is obviously betting that young consumers will want one of each — or at least a variety. It was always a little weird to have a bunch of dolls that looked like clones anyway.

And Barbie’s new shapes are just healthier. Blogger Liz Gumbinner of @Mom101 points out the original Barbie looks "a little sickly compared with her new sisters."

My daughter is a completely different body type from me, skinny legs and all — obviously from the other side of the family — and I’ve gone out of my way not to talk about it. We talk about running for fitness, eating healthy, choosing clothes that make you feel good, not necessarily what your friends are wearing. Fingers crossed.

I still have nostalgia for the old Barbie clothes we had as kids, the ones made from cotton and other natural fabrics instead of some odd plastic material, and snaps and actual buttons instead of Velcro. My mom’s friend, a talented seamstress, also made us coats and one-of-a-kind evening gowns that are still my favorites.

But I won’t miss the one-size-fits-all approach to Barbie. Because it doesn’t.

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Julie Wurth writes about kids and families and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at 217-351-5226, jwurth@news-gazette.com or Twitter.com/jawurth.