Have you heard? It’s that time of year. For the first day of spring? For the Winter Olympics closing ceremonies? For Girl Scout cookies? No, I am referring to the 50-year old tradition of the release of Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit edition, which released today. According to SI, this is a very special year, as they have gathered 22 former SI Swimsuit cover models to reunite in a photo shoot and editorial production called “Salute to the Legends of Swimsuit”. This will involve such supermodels as Tyra Banks, Christie Brinkley, Heidi Klum, Kathy Ireland… and one more unexpected guest star: Barbie. That’s right, Barbie. The doll will be featured wearing a version of the black and white striped swimsuit it wore when the doll was introduced in 1959.
— Barbie (@Barbie) February 12, 2014
Barbie’s presence in a magazine intended for adults is only part of an overall campaign that Mattel has titled, “#Unapologetic” — it will also involve a billboard in Times Square and the release of a new SI Barbie doll that will be sold exclusively at Target.com. According to a Mattel spokesperson: “Unapologetic is a rally cry to embrace who you are and to never have to apologize for it.” Evidently this campaign is a new way to try to fight back against the criticisms Barbie receives for her incredibly unrealistic image of “perfection”—a perfection so far reaching that her long, lean proportions would prevent her from being able to walk if she were human. In my view, it is hard to see how Barbie as an “unapologetic” role model will help girls and women to “embrace who they are” if they believe they should look like Barbie.
It is very interesting that the inclusion of Barbie in the annual SI issue stirred such a buzz in the media this week. Many commentators are critical because the Barbie announcement pulls together two major cultural traditions that portray a narrow, sexualized version of womanhood. Critics claim that girls who play with Barbie become socialized to believe that they must look like her, and if they don’t, then they don’t measure up, not only in terms of beauty but also in terms of how they see themselves as people. In the same way, SI Swimsuit is critiqued for the objectification of women in its collection of bikini-clad models, with their idealized bodies on display for the viewing pleasure of readers.
In its defense, Sports Illustrated argues that the Swimsuit Issue actually celebrates women and that Barbie fits in with this image: "From its earliest days, Swimsuit has delivered a message of empowerment, strength and beauty, and we are delighted that Barbie is celebrating those core values in such a unique manner" said Swimsuit Editor M. J. Day. This quote poses a question for me: In what ways are pictures of models posing in (and out of) swimsuits included in a magazine designed for sports enthusiasts empowering to women? A well-cited study included in my book, Adolescent Girls in Distress: A Mental Health Guide to Treatment and Prevention, demonstrates the emotion-laden experience that wearing a swimsuit has become for most women. When divided into two groups — one wearing a swimsuit and the other group wearing turtlenecks — the young women wearing swimsuits performed worse on a math test than did the other group, and these women were in dressing rooms by themselves. The pressure that many women feel in living up to cultural standards of beauty can often be dis-empowering and distracting at best.
On the other side of the Barbie-SI Swimsuit controversy, some people are simply dismissive: “What is the big deal?” After all, she is just a doll. But if that is the case, I wonder why Mattel and Sports Illustrated believe that a doll is appropriate to include alongside human models, as if it doesn’t matter that she is not a real person? As if Heidi Klum and Barbie are interchangeable? According to a spokeswoman at Mattel, Barbie is definitely not just a doll: "Barbie is a legend in her own right, with more than 150 careers and a brand valued at $3 billion. She is in great company with the other legends such as Heidi Klum and Christie Brinkley, to name a few." With quotes such as these, her inclusion in Swimsuit does become a big deal. Calling her a “legend” takes her out of toy-land and into the realm of influence and power. She becomes larger than a toy and takes on even more importance as a potential ideal for girls to emulate. As I write in my book, little girls do soak in the cultural messages around them: look like this, act like this, and you will be happy, popular, successful — in other words, follow the formula, and you can have it all. Even if you have a career, even if you break the glass ceiling and become fabulously successful, you should still look perfect; you should still look like Barbie.
We know that girls who internalize cultural messages regarding the need to meet expectations for a perfect appearance while also accomplishing high levels of achievement are at risk for the development of mental health problems. The premise of my book is to present the cultural issues that so strongly affect today’s girls, to describe how this sets them up for potential mental health problems, and then to provide detailed treatment strategies for 5 problems girls increasingly face:
- Eating disorders
- Substance abuse
- Sexual victimization
It is my hope that parents and professionals can help girls navigate the difficult cultural terrain that is before them and to provide them with skills to be resilient to the onslaught of cultural pressures they will face. From Barbie to SI Swimsuit, it is clear that this battle will be a lifelong process.