Barbie: The Impact of a Cultural Icon

Barbie, introduced to American girls in 1959, has become a cultural touchstone so polarizing that she has been co-opted by dozens of artists and activists over the years as a symbol for everything from beauty to materialism to women’s equality to women’s inequality to nostalgia for more peaceful times. So it’s no surprise that she has a huge impact on body image for young girls.

Barbie has been pilloried, idealized, analyzed and debated. She has been painted as the Mona Lisa, as the Girl with the Pearl Earring, and by Warhol as one of his celebrities. She’s been the subject of several documentaries and starred in her own movie. She comes in every race and almost all nationalities (though most versions have Caucasian features.) Barbie has been the topic of hundreds of essays and academic books. Thanks to a Texas-based advertising agency, for a while in 2009 she had obesity and served in the campaign of an organization called the Active Life Movement. She and her partner, Ken, even had their names bestowed on a pair of serial killers.

But is she also inspiring young girls and women to covet a body much thinner (in some places) and curvier (in others) than is realistic and causing body image issues? Many have argued yes, and one artist in Pittsburgh agrees. Inspired by an infographic detailing Barbie’s impossible dimensions in comparison to real women, Nickolay Lamm created an illustration of what he calls “Average Barbie.” Average Barbie resembles real Barbie, but Average Barbie has the dimensions of an average 19-year-old woman as defined by statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“If Barbie looks as good as an average woman and there’s even a small chance of Barbie influencing young girls, why can’t we come out with an average-sized doll,” the artist said. “Average is beautiful.”

Click here to read more in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Young Girl with Doll, 19th century illustration, artist unknown, from Lill’s Travels in Santa Claus Land, courtesy of

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