The debate over the effect of the waistline of the typical fashion doll on the developing psyches of young girls is a perennial favorite among fashion doll collectors. The topic can raise the hackles of those on each side of the issue, but, at least in my observation, the general consensus seems to be that those who decry the, at the very least, unrealistic proportions of fashion dolls are perpetuating a false hysteria. The typical argument goes that such dolls are playthings, and that young girls understand this and treat them as such, using them as vehicles for their own creativity. Female collectors generally vouch that they played with Barbie and her friends during their own childhoods, and that doing so never did their own self-esteem much harm.
My own viewpoint differs from this general sentiment, as I think that many collectors miss the fact that today’s prepubescent girls have much more than Barbie’s skinny plastic body to compete with. Barbie on her own has never given a little girl an eating disorder. But our girls are continually bombarded with the message that the bodily proportions exemplified and perpetuated by Barbie—as seen online, in movies, TV shows, billboards, commercials, and magazines—are the most desirable, and that women who do not possess them are inadequate compared to those who do. In time, girls absorb these messages and start to believe that their bodies are the outward manifestations of their inner worth.
To be sure, Barbie did not accomplish this on her own. She had lots of help. In fact, in many cases, when people refer to “Barbie,” or, more appropriately, “barbie,” they are not specifically referring to Mattel’s best-selling doll 50 years running. Rather, it has become the catch-all title for all fashion dolls with less-than-realistic proportions. (So don’t take it too personally, Barbie collectors.) 😉
Today’s world is a very different one for children than the one that many of us grew up in as we played with our Barbies in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. While we undoubtedly did, in some shape or form, receive strong messages that our sex appeal was more important than our brains, the mass objectification and commercialization of women’s bodies did not yet exist. Today’s Barbie has come to encapsulate the consistent message that real success is achieved with sexual desirability. Images of women with exaggerated sexual attributes are used to sell everything from automobiles to drinking water. As one of the most recognizable representations of commercialized femininity, Barbie is often a scapegoat for the larger sins of our society.
Most successful collectable fashion dolls (but not all – more on that below) reflect Barbie’s idealized proportions to one extent or another. Many of those who design fashion doll clothing say in defense of Barbie and her friends that these dolls were never meant to be naked. Rather, they say, these are fashion dolls, and they are accordingly created to model miniature clothing to the best possible advantage. These defenders of Barbie say her proportions are necessary to achieve a scale that mirrors the size of actual fashion models. This is undoubtedly true when you consider that today’s fashion models are typically a size 0 or size 2, and that models who wear a size 6 are considered “plus-sized.” But I’ve always wondered, if doll artists can properly scale the fashions of a size 2 model, is it not possible to achieve a scale in miniature of the sizes worn by most women?
This idea has been tested in the collectible fashion doll world, with mixed results. (More average-sized play line dolls have also been produced, most recently the much-talked-about “Lammily.” But my discussion here is limited to the collectible doll world.) One of the earliest examples, at least to my knowledge, is Robert Tonner’s “Emme,” produced in 2006. Emme was designed to be a likeness of Melissa Aronson, who was one of the first successful “plus-sized” models. She is a writer, TV host, lecturer, and a self-proclaimed feminist who works to encourage positive body image and self-esteem in girls and boys. In one of her books, Emme tells the story of her stepfather, who, when she was 12 years old, drew on her body with black marker to indicate the areas where he told her she needed to lose weight.
Although the Emme doll initially sold well, the body’s lack of sufficient articulation ultimately led to the end of the endeavor. I’d argue that Emme’s face sculpt didn’t help either. Emme the doll bore little resemblance to Emme the person, and the fashions Tonner gave her were less than inspired. Kudos to Tonner for the effort, but it fell short. Tonner would later use Emme’s body on Effie (from his Dreamgirls line), Belle Watling (from his Gone with the Wind line), Julie Andrews (from his Princess Diaries line), and several others.
Far more successful was a doll body that Tonner debuted in 2008 and used for the video game heroine, Lara Croft, Tomb Raider. Tonner called the body “athletic,” and it better reflected the way in which female characters were typically rendered in video games and comic books. Tonner used this body several times for his DC comics superheros. These dolls were tremendously popular, especially among comic book enthusiasts, and they’ve become very difficult to find on the secondary market. When they do pop up on Ebay, it is not unusual for them to fetch hundreds of dollars. Tonner would later use his “athletic” body for his “Re-Imagination” series that featured an adult reinterpretation of fairy tale heroines. Again, these dolls gained a sizeable following and sold out quickly.
Shortly after Lara Croft hit the scene, Tonner again put the athletic body to use—this time, for a fashion doll named DeeAnna Denton, and, later, for her nemesis Peggy Harcourt. DeeAnna’s back story cast her as a 1950s heiress to a chewing gum empire founded by her father, and her dress befitted her role as a privileged member of New York high society. DeeAnna’s curvaceous body was markedly different from Tonner’s previous fashion dolls, and her new figure more accurately mirrored the standard of beauty popular in her era. Her lovely facial sculpt and historically accurate and well-detailed and gorgeously draped fashions added to her appeal, and she quickly became a fan favorite.
Sadly, Tonner substituted DeeAnna’s and Peggy’s athletic body with a new, so-called “curvaceous” body in 2012. DeeAnna’s head was accordingly “shrunk” to fit her new diminutive form, in which her generous bust balanced awkwardly on her small waist. DeeAnna’s face lost its softness, and her body lost the proportions that made her such a welcome change from Tonner’s typical fashion doll fare. Her sales dropped off, and today the “new DeeAnnas” are often liquidated in online factory sales. DeeAnna and Peggy dolls with the original bodies and their fashions go for hundreds of dollars on Ebay.
By the time Tonner obtained his license to manufacture the likeness of Marilyn Monroe, he had created the “starlet” body, which had an infinitesimally larger bust and hips than his standard fashion doll body. (One collector measured no difference in the bust, and a mere ¼” difference in the hips.) Tonner put his less-than-flattering Marilyn Monroe sculpt on this body, and the result bore no resemblance to the legend at all. I can only speculate how his sales might have improved had Marilyn been given the curvier athletic body (and a facelift).
Many lesser-known, independent artists have likewise experimented with realistic female body sculpts. One remarkable example that recently came to my attention is the “Dea Vivente” dolls. Dea Vivente is the work of Russian doll artist Anya Kozlova. Her dolls are made of porcelain and are ball-jointed for maximum realism and posability. I am not exaggerating when I say that Kozlova’s dolls are some of the most stunning art dolls I have ever seen. She crafts each one of her masterpieces by hand, and they are engineered so well that they able to stand unassisted. Even the diminutive hands and feet are works of art. More than any other, I think, Kozlova has proven that collectible dolls can be “big” (a relative term) and stunningly beautiful at the same time. You can follow Kozlova’s work on her blog or Facebook page.
This list is, of course, not exhaustive. Many modern, Asian-influenced, anime-inspired fashion dolls likewise defy the skinny-waisted, big-busted, pointy-footed body type that most often characterize Western fashion dolls. Ellowyne Wilde, with her large head and underdeveloped, girlish body is one such example of a wildly popular nontraditional fashion doll. (wildeimagination.com) The ball-jointed doll (BJD) world is awash in additional examples. These dolls constitute a huge segment of the collector doll market, and they bear no resemblance to the “barbies” that most non-collectors are the most familiar with.
Although the “barbies” of the fashion doll collector world still set the body standard for the industry, I am seeing more and more artists deviate from that standard and explore different body types on which to model miniature fashion and couture. As collectors, we vote with our pocketbooks, and what we choose to spend our money on dictates which dolls stay and which go. Doll artists do take chances on nontraditional doll concepts—this post explores but a few. If we signal that we are ready for more diversity in our collections, we will see it in the marketplace.
(Are there any nontraditional dolls that you have in your collection? Please share in the comments section!)