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Cover model Barbie: Life in plastic, not so fantastic

By Stephanie KostopoulosSpecial to the Chronicle

Welcome to the twenty first century, everyone. Recently, Aerie was celebrated for adopting a progressive advertising campaign.  No longer using Photoshop to enhance its models, the teen lingerie line now promotes a positive female body image and reinforces the idea that it’s okay to be real.

You’d think other major brands would seize the opportunity to reform as well, but you’d be surprised.  Sports Illustrated, whose annual swimsuit edition is famous for its racy covers of paradoxically skinny yet voluptuous super models, is still stuck in its ways.

The magazine chose a swimsuit-clad Barbie as the subject of its 50th anniversary swimsuit edition cover. I’m not sure what’s more unsettling – the fact that both Sports Illustrated and Mattel’s Barbie still unrealistically portray the female body, or the fact that the two brands teamed up to create double the negative effect.

Women are inevitably compared to super models, and now they have to be compared to plastic models, too? In this way, society continues to label mainly skinny women as beautiful. This gives women false expectations as to what they should try to look like.

Additionally, men have unrealistic fantasies about the perfect woman, a woman who exists only on a magazine cover or as a plastic doll.  And plastic is as unnatural as it is fake.

In comparison to that of the average woman, Barbie’s neck is six inches smaller. Finding a real woman who is as thin as a Barbie doll with a neck size that tiny is impossible; she wouldn’t be able to hold up her head, which, in Barbie’s case, is on average two inches larger than the typical woman’s…perhaps to extenuate her perfect facial features.

Her legs are 50 percent longer than her arms, whereas the average woman’s legs are only twenty percent longer, and her waist, at only 16 inches, would be unable to house vital internal organs necessary for her to live. And we’re supposed to aspire to that?

Regardless, Barbie steals the spotlight on the cover of a widely sold edition of a wildly popular magazine. Being compared to retouched women doesn’t feel good, and neither does being compared to plastic dolls. It’s like Sports Illustrated is saying that no woman is beautiful enough to be celebrated in that light, so they put an imaginary woman there instead.

Personally, Barbie dolls never offended me. As a little girl, I would play with them and not even consider that she represents an unrealistic portrayal of women. But knowing what I know now, I understand the controversy behind the doll and the issue, especially since the Mattel is defending their product by saying that they are “unapologetic” about how it offends other women.  I don’t find that very beautiful.

The Aerie campaign is the start of something great. Maybe Sports Illustrated’s mistake is just a minor speed bump on the road to a better future in advertising. Maybe one day Barbie will have curves and muscle. Maybe one day photoshopping magazine covers will be taboo.  And maybe one day women will realize their true beauty, one that mass media will appreciate, too.


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