Don't Blame Barbie

By Michele Filon

 Too fat. Too thin. Women and girls have always struggled with bodyimage issues, which sometimes lead to eating disorders. Pop culture has been assigned a lion’s share of the blame. You’ve no doubt heard people make remarks like: “Girls see models in Vogue and think that’s how they should look” or “Barbie’s real-life measurements would be 39-19-33!” or “All the actresses on (insert name of popular TV show du jour here) are so skinny!” But the problem begins much earlier – around the family dinner table.

Marita P. McCabe and Lina A. Ricciardelli of the School of Psychology at Deakin University in Australia have extensively studied the connection between media and body image, and while they’ve confirmed some correlation between what a young girl sees in a magazine and how she feels about herself, what’s more intriguing is the connection they’ve discovered between self-image and family behaviors. The mom that says, “Honey, you don’t need a second helping” might be trying to protect her daughter from being fat in a society that frowns upon it, but McCabe and Ricciardelli’s studies indicate that the child is hearing, “Honey, it’s better to be thin.” The researchers have also found a correlation between a mother’s feelings about her own weight and her desire to raise a slim child — and that child’s later relationship with food. With the best of intentions, a mom can set up her daughter for a lifetime of eating issues before the child is old enough to realize that Barbie isn’t built like a regular woman. The family continues to send mixed messages about eating throughout a child’s early years. Food is love; too much food is… well, let’s just say, if Mom passes on dessert with an, “Ugh, I feel so fat!” then her children, even the slim ones, are more likely to develop body-image issues. The same happens with subtler, and often confusing cues from inside and outside the family. For example, in Shrek, which purportedly sends the message that true beauty comes from within, Fiona is heavier when she’s an ogre by day and is given a major slim-down as she “gets beautiful” by night. It’s no wonder that by now, girls are equating slenderness with goodness.

“Researchers have also found a correlation between a mother’sfeelings about her own weightand her desire to raise a slim child ̶ and that child’s later relationship with food.” Beauty comes from within, Fiona is heavier when she’s an ogre by day and is given a major slim-down as she “gets beautiful” by night. It’s no wonder that by now, girls are equating slenderness with goodness. Adults have a diffi cult time of it too, as they try to navigate a culture in which a 10-pound weight change is the difference between “could stand to lose a few pounds,” “nice and slim,” and “way too skinny.” Imagine a child trying to understand this distinction, especially when she’s getting such confl icting information from within her family. She may understand that a doll or a photograph doesn’t represent reality, but she may not understand why an adult might say “You did a good job, so I made you a special dessert,” and then turn around and say, “I’m being good tonight, so I’ll skip dessert.”

Things don’t get much better in college, unfortunately. Christian S. Crandall’s 1988 study at Yale was among the fi rst to describe bulimia as a contagious disease, noting that it spreads among women in a dorm, on a cheerleading squad or in similar social group settings. I asked several college freshmen what they thought of that theory: each girl told me, with some degree of surprise, of the number of girls in their dorm who were binging and purging (which wasnot as large a problem when they were in high school). They also told me that they understood why: In times of stress, it’s easier to be part of a group and go along with whatever everyone else is doing. As one girl shared, “I didn’t realize it was that easy until I found out half the dorm was doing it.” There’s no doubt that media images aff ect us all ̶ especially young children who have yet to develop the analytical skills needed to navigate all of the mixed messages. What’s surprising is that so many of us seem to accept the insulting premise that girls are more susceptible to the manipulative nature of the images than boys are. So before we pin it all on Barbie, maybe we should fi gure out why we don’t think boys develop similar body issues from their toys. Perhaps boys assume that as they grow up, they will develop into the same molded plastic shape that G.I. Joe and Ken sport, but I seriously doubt it. And there doesn’t seem to be many cases of girls growing up believing they should look like a Cabbage Patch kid, either. But what do I know? I was raised with Barbie.

Although not literally, these organizations are doing their partto dispel the Barbie myth. Women seeking empowerment and definitionbeyond beauty who wish to make a difference in re-shaping the mindset of girls, young women (and their own!) may wish to check out: Miss Representation – This call-toaction campaign seeks to empower women and girls to challenge limiting labels in order to realize their potential, and to encourage men and boys to stand up to sexism. The movement is centered on a documentary by f lmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom, which premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, and is supported by ongoing Internet campaigns. For more information, visit Empowering Through Beauty, Inc. ‒ This group’s S.U.R.E. program (Successful, Unique, Respectful and Empowered) helps at-risk girls and teens understand and express their unique identities as they mature into self-aware, healthy adults. For more information, visit Be Your Own You ‒ This online group seeks to help girls overcome unrealistic standards of beauty and unhealthy role models, both in the media and within their own families, so they’re less likely to seek external validation for their inner worth. President Debra Gano also runs nationwide support groups and programs that support girls and women in this pursuit. For more information,

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