Local expert view: Barbie’s image warps boys’ views of womenEveryone has a body. Attached to this fundamental fact, however, are a variety of ideas that help us to determine what kind of body we have and what kind of body we want.
By: George Hoagland, Duluth News Tribune
Everyone has a body. Attached to this fundamental fact, however, are a variety of ideas that help us to determine what kind of body we have and what kind of body we want. Additionally, since we are social creatures, we look at each other to figure out if our particular body type is socially valuable. This phenomenon, whereby we recognize types, norms and values, is one that is socially constructed; that is, it has no inherent relationship to what we might call our biological existences.
In fact, we could go so far as to say that the very notion of biology is an effect of such social construction. Let me be clear what I mean by this seemingly improbable statement. Of course we are material beings: living, breathing organisms. But in order for us to understand what any of that means we have to abide by certain rules (belief in the objectivity of science, for example). Those rules are the result of social compacts and a legacy of human communication and interpretation that accompanied our ascent from whatever primordial sludge predated us.
If our ideas about our bodies were socially constructed, then it may be fair to ask why we don’t just construct better ideas about them. Why don’t we appreciate a greater variety of beautiful bodies? Why do we internalize messages meant to force our bodies into impossible shapes? Why can’t we just grow old (or fat or sick or different) gracefully?
One answer to all of these questions is that we really prefer the imbalance of power that keeps our society running the way it does.
But how could that be? Who on Earth would work to maintain a system that tethers people to ill-fitting standards? Can we blame this one on the media? Rich people? White people? Men? Or maybe the blame lies with inadequate health care, cultural enervation, consumer capitalism or apathy. Or maybe the problem runs so deep in our cultural consciousness that we don’t even notice the judgments we levy against ourselves.
Consider the case of the Barbie doll. We are very familiar with the facts of her distorted anatomy. Yes, that waist is nonsensical. And the neck is a pre-CGI fantasy. Her feet can only fit into high heels. She’s either white or a browner version of white. And even if she’s no longer in fashion as a toy (though she’s attempting a comeback), she has inspired new generations of disfigured dolls. None of this comes as news. But I think we’ve been overlooking an important demographic in these conversations. We haven’t talked much about men and boys, and the effect Barbie’s brand of female imagery has on them.
The same social norms that promote negative body images for girls and women also work on boys and men. And these norms actually may be more pernicious for them since they’re not usually included in body-image discourse except as it pertains to sports (and, increasingly, eating disorders). Few boys are taught to think of Barbie as one of womanhood’s contested sites. Today it’s very likely that a boy is taught to think of girls, and later women, as equals, as people to be respected. That same boy, however, may not be taught to examine his ideas of what it means to have a female body or to consider how his ideas of female beauty have developed. For such a boy, Barbie might be an off-limits toy that he covets, destroys or avoids without questioning the relationship between the doll and femininity.
As boys mature, the barrage of female imagery to which they are subjected only reinforces this relationship. How is he supposed to know what the possibilities of female beauty really are when he’s been largely left out of the conversation? And when young women talk about their struggles with body-image issues, how can he meaningfully contribute?
As an educator, I find it heartbreaking to observe how young women readily engage in body-image discussions and how young men so quickly shut down. It’s as if they’ve internalized the idea that they simply can’t have an opinion other than the one we’ve programmed them to have. And we certainly have programmed a great number of them. We’ve even taught the ones who are challenging or resisting problematic notions of a singular type of female beauty to be really quiet about it. How sad is that?
What if, in our unending quest for greater social justice, we stopped looking for culprits in the body-image debate and just actually started debating? I mean all of us: boys; girls; women; men; transpeople; genderqueer and gender-variant folks; grandmas and grandpas; elders; people with different bodily technologies; people who are gloriously sick or miserably healthy; people with multinational, international, or transnational backgrounds and heritages; and ethnic people (aka all of us). What do you think would happen?
George Hoagland is an assistant professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth.