Emily L. Newman is Professor at Texas A&M University-Commerce in the Liberal Studies Department. She completed her PhD at The Graduate Center, CUNY, where she specialized in contemporary art and gender studies. Her research concerns intersections of feminist art history, popular culture, the female body, and activism, as exemplified by Female Body Image in Contemporary Art: Dieting, Eating Disorders, Self-Harm, and Fatness (Routledge, 2018) and Fashioning Politics and Protests: New Visual Cultures of Feminism in the United States (Palgrave Macmillan, 2023).

In the middle of America Ferrera’s now-iconic monologue from Greta Gerwig’s Barbie (2023), her character Gloria explains, “You have to be thin, but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin. You have to say you want to be healthy, but also you have to be thin.” Arguably, the Barbie doll is one of the best examples of an unachievably tiny body size, which is supported by a study that showed that over half of Gen Z women think Barbie represents the ideal body type. [1] On one hand, this quote might feel a bit out of place in a movie centered upon a woman-doll that has been upheld as epitomizing the most beautiful and desirable type of female body. Yet, almost immediately upon widespread release of the film, this quote was plastered on social media everywhere. Surprisingly, Barbie (the movie) was challenging the ideal body type proposed by Barbie (the doll).

Uniquely, the character of ‘Stereotypical Barbie’ tries to complicate this conception of Barbie and a thin female body image before the well-known monologue. Gloria’s daughter Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt) is challenging Barbie (Margot Robie) in a heated discussion. Barbie is trying to defend her life and her history, as Sasha proclaims, “You represent everything wrong with our culture: sexualized capitalism, unrealistic physical ideals…” Barbie tries to interrupt, but Sasha commands Barbie to look at herself while continuing, “You set the feminist movement back fifty years, you destroy girl’s innate sense of worth, and you are killing the planet with your glorification of rampant consumerism.” Barbie is devastated, and she tries one last time to insist she was made to help women, inspiring them to feel happy and powerful. Sasha’s insistence ends the fight, and Barbie retreats, crying. Everything Barbie had understood about her existence is not reality, rather, it applies only in Barbieland where women are not subjected to any patriarchal notions.

Barbie’s expanded size line. https://www.barbiemedia.com/news/detail/141.html
In Barbieland, women of all types are embraced, including those of various sizes, shapes, and races. It simply does not matter what the women look like and is never addressed or commented upon by any of the characters. The narrator (Helen Mirren) further clarifies Barbie’s worldview, illuminating, “Thanks to Barbie, all problems of feminism and equal rights have been solved (at least that’s what the Barbies think).” It isn’t a surprise then, that Gerwig cast women of all different backgrounds including racially diverse women, disabled women, and fat women. While the women all seem to hover around 30 years old, all of them dance, wear swimwear, and engage in all types of events and performances. Strikingly, despite the possible opportunity to capitalize on the film’s popularity and appeal with one more merchandising revenue stream, it is not possible to buy Barbies that look like all the women portraying them in the film.

Photo by Brian Centrone.

“The sidekicks, or atypical Barbies, can have different body types, disabilities, or even wacky colors, but never any of the central key Barbies, and certainly not the one Barbie who epitomizes the Barbie archetype.”

That being said, Barbie has tried to diversify its body types for over fifteen years. In 2016, Mattel introduced three new Barbie body types to the world: curvy, tall, and petite. For the first time, Barbie’s body was a little bit bigger, though not by much. [2] Just enough to need new clothes, emphasize her hips and showcase a larger, broader chest. Curvy Barbie may stand out amidst the Barbie types, but she barely approaches the comparative size of the average woman. Of course, Barbie was always meant to be thin. Likewise, Midge, Skipper, and other friends of hers are also thin (except when pregnant).

This relatively recent attempt to diversify the size of Barbie differed dramatically from Slumber Party Barbie, which was produced first in 1965. [3] She came with fun pink satin pajamas, a pink robe, a mirror, and, shockingly, a diet book. That’s right, a small cardboard “book” titled “How to Lose Weight” with a figure on the cover standing on a scale. On the back was printed the simple phrase, “DON’T EAT!” If that was not enough, to make sure this Barbie was on the right track, she came with a little pink plastic scale permanently registering “110lbs.” Lucky for this plastic Barbie, she could neither eat nor gain weight, remaining a perfect thin body type in perpetuity.

Top: Diet book that accompanied Slumber Party Barbie, 1965. Photo by author. Bottom: Various doll scales collected by the author; the pink furry scale in the center accompanied Slumber Party Barbie. Photo by author.
An interesting take on an idea of a changing body appeared in 1975, with Growing Up Skipper, a real doll shown briefly in the film. Skipper, Barbie’s younger sister, had previously been depicted as prepubescent. But Growing Up Skipper allowed you to raise her arms up and down and Skipper really grew – getting a bit taller and enlarging her breasts. [4] She even included a second outfit, a better fit for a young woman. Both Slumber Party Barbie and Growing Up Skipper were discontinued the same year they were released.

Barbie, however, has never been fat. She has never even been average-sized, which current research says is a size 16-18 for American women. [5] In 2013, graphic designer Nickolay Lamm created a “normal” Barbie, based on the proportions of an average nineteen-year-old woman according to CDC measurements. [6] Using 3D printing, he made a prototype, which he photographed next to the original Barbie. The new doll debuted with a shorter neck, a larger waist, broader torso, and more muscular legs. His depiction went viral, and led to a widely successful crowd-funding campaign that would allow for the development of Lammily, of which he has gone on to produce a number of dolls with average proportions that even come with a sticker pack that includes moles, cellulite, stretch marks, acne, bruises, and more. While these dolls garnered lots of press and notoriety when they were proposed, press attention faded pretty quick. It is quite possible, however, that Lamm’s work inspired Mattel to diversify the sizes of their Barbies in 2016.

First edition Lammily doll, available at https://lammily.com/product/lammily-exclusive-first-edition/

Prior to those changes, Mattel allowed Barbie to appear on the 50th anniversary Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue cover in 2014 (via a promotional coverwrap for the American International Toy Fair). Posing with her body in profile, Barbie wears a modern version of her iconic black-and-white swimsuit, showing off her slender plastic form against a sky background. [7] Similarities abound to the start of the Barbie movie, where the slim Robie appears in the original swimsuit, gigantic among the young girls playing with baby dolls. While Gerwig may have wanted to expand the notion of what women’s bodies could and should look like, the lead Stereotypical Barbie remains thin, beautiful, and practically ‘perfect.’ The sidekicks, or atypical Barbies, can have different body types, disabilities, or even wacky colors, but never any of the central key Barbies, and certainly not the one Barbie who epitomizes the Barbie archetype. Until Mattel adjusts their priorities and elevates different types of bodies to their main line, no lasting changes will ever be felt.

Notes: How to Lose Weight

[1] Harmony Healthcare IT, “Barbie: Bestie or Bad Influence? Women Open Up About Body Image Influences in 2023,” Harmony Healthcare IT, June 22, 2023, https://www.harmonyhit.com/women-and-body-image-statistics-new-2023-data/

[2] Julie Wosk, “The New Curvy Barbie Dolls: What They Tell Us About Being Overweight,” February 12, 2016, Huff Post, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-new-curvy-barbie-dolls-what-they-tell-us-about-being-overweight_b_9193136.

[3] Martha de Lacey, “'Don't eat!': Controversial 1965 Slumber Party Barbie came with scales permanently set to just 110lbs and a diet book telling her not to eat,” Daily Mail, November 28, 2012, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2239931/1965-Slumber-Party-Barbie-came-scales-set-110lbs-diet-book-telling-eat.html.

[4] Kaleigh Werner, “Woman demonstrates how Mattel’s controversial ‘Growing up Skipper’ Barbie works in viral TikTok,” Independent, August 1, 2023, https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/barbie-skipper-doll-tiktok-b2385793.html.

[5] Deborah A. Christel, “Average American Women’s Clothing Size: comparing National Health and Nutritional Examination Surveys (1988–2010) to ASTM International Misses & Women’s Plus Size clothing,” International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education 10, no. 2 (2017): 129-136.

[6] Lammily LLC, “Our Story,” Lammily, 2018, https://lammily.com/about/our-story/.

[7] Martha Zaytoun, “Look: This Iconic Barbie Was Also Once a SI Swimsuit Cover Model,” Sports Illustrated Swimsuit, August 8, 2023, https://swimsuit.si.com/swimnews/barbie-was-once-a-si-swimsuit-cover-model.

Issue 13 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Politics
Issue 12 ︎︎︎ Border Garments: Fashion, Feminisms, & Disobedience

Issue 11 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Digital Engagement
Issue 10 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Partnership

Issue 9 ︎︎︎ Fall 2021

Issue 8 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Mental Health

Issue 7 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Motherhood

Issue 6 ︎︎︎ Fall 2020

Issue 5 ︎︎︎ The Industry

Issue 4 ︎︎︎ Summer 2017

Issue 3 ︎︎︎ Spring 2017

Issue 2 ︎︎︎ Winter 2016

Issue 1 ︎︎︎ Fall 2016

Issue 13 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Politics

Issue 11 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Digital Engagement

Issue 10 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Partnership

Issue 9 ︎︎︎ Fall 2021

Issue 8 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Mental Health

Issue 7 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Motherhood

Issue 6 ︎︎︎ Fall 2020

Issue 5 ︎︎︎ The Industry

Issue 4 ︎︎︎ Summer 2017

Issue 3 ︎︎︎ Spring 2017

Issue 2 ︎︎︎ Winter 2016

Issue 1 ︎︎︎ Fall 2016