When is Barbie going to get cankles already?
That’s my question after hearing that Mattel has expanded the Barbie line to include tall, curvy, and short dolls.
And when is she going to get a large butt or small breasts or ugly toes?
That last thing—along with the cankles—was the focus of our most recent pop culture example of America’s body image obsession, courtesy of The Bachelor contestant Olivia.
“Do I have bad toes? Yeah,” says Olivia. (This is all on camera, in case you’re wondering.) Later, she tells bachelor Ben Higgins, “I hate my legs” and “Blogs have been written about my cankles. It’s really hard.”
Sure, most of us wouldn’t ‘fess up to this on national TV. And we certainly wouldn’t do it, as Olivia does with the cankles confession, after Ben announces he’s dealing with the death of people close to him.
But body image issues are hardly confined to reality show starlets. According to a 2014 Today/AOL survey, 67 percent of adult women worry about their appearance once a week or more. (In contrast, only 46 percent and 40 percent of women respectively worry weekly about their families or professional success.)
And there is increasing gender equality in the panic over body image: a 2014 study published in JAMA found 17.9 percent of adolescent boys were “extremely concerned with their weight and physique.”
What’s going on?
The Barbie doll has been a target of body image advocates for years, a fact that has always bewildered me. As a tall, “curvy” woman, I don’t resemble the Barbies I happily played with growing up. Nor do I resemble the My Little Ponies I played with, and, for that matter, neither do the men my age resemble their Lego characters and action heroes.
When I think of when I’ve struggled with body image issues, I don’t think of Barbie, but of real women. Women endlessly complaining and fretting over a body part they didn’t like, putting happiness on hold until that last ten pounds were lost. Women endlessly fixating on dieting, with too little attention being paid to being healthy rather than being as thin as possible.
I’ve been guilty of it myself, but I’ve also seen how it’s ingrained in female culture. There’s little that will bond two women more swiftly or closely as shared struggles with dieting or talking about their dissatisfaction over their bodies.
Why is that? After all, few women or men are buying magazines advertising “How to Be as Smart as Stephen Hawking in Just 2 Months!” or checking out “8 Tips to Get Michael Jordan’s Dunking Success.”
Yet while most of us realize—and accept—that we’re not geniuses or superstar athletes, we seem to persist in believing that we can be as beautiful as the most attractive celebrities if we just find the right eyeliner/become thin enough/get some plastic surgery.
Maybe our persistent belief in that myth has nothing to do with the toys we grew up with playing with. Maybe it’s because, like The Bachelor’s Olivia, a lot of Americans are looking to be loved—and they, like Olivia, think only beautiful people (say, those without ugly toes and cankles) get loved.
In recent decades, families have fractured as the divorce rate has skyrocketed. Cohabitation has become increasingly common, despite the fact that men and women seem to view the level of commitment in cohabitation differently. “Fifty-two percent of cohabiting men between ages 18 and 26 are not ‘almost certain’ that their relationship is permanent. . . . By contrast, only 39 percent of cohabiting women in the same age group are not ‘almost certain’ their relationship will go the distance,” wrote W. Bradford Wilcox of a 2013 RAND paper, suggesting that there are women who, knowingly or not, are in a relationship that they are the only ones truly committed to—hardly a recipe for happiness.
Young adults are also increasingly competing against porn stars for near-perfect bodies: two-thirds of men and one-third of women between 18-30 consume porn at least monthly, according to a 2014 survey by Proven Men Ministries. Online dating and apps like Tinder have their upsides, but they’ve also contributed to the idea that you’re just a swipe away from that perfect-looking person—a slender-ankled version of Olivia, for example.
Add it all up, and it’s no golden age for romantic relationships. And the decline of the family and the increasing isolation from community life documented by social scientists such as Robert Putnam show that it’s not really a good era for non-romantic relationships, either.
It’s easy to fixate on Barbie’s waist-to-hip ratio. It’s hard—and painful—to consider how our culture’s behavior may be damaging our ability to love and be loved. But only one route leads to a culture where body image issues truly fade away—and it’s not the path that involves changing a children’s toy.