This is not your average Barbie doll — at least not the one with the impossibly elongated proportions, likely to be found floating in your 4-year-old daughter's bathtub.
"Average Barbie," a computer generated image of what a Barbie with healthy proportions could look like, has gone viral on CNN, Time.com, the Huffington Post and on innumerable Mommy blogs, igniting — once again — the issue of whether Barbie dolls are good for a girl's body image.
And it's all thanks to Nickolay Lamm, a 24-year-old Greenfield artist and researcher.
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"If Barbie looks good as an average woman and even there's a small chance of Barbie influencing young girls, why can't we come out with an average-sized doll?" Mr. Lamm lamented on the phone recently. "Average is beautiful."
Mr. Lamm is a man with a mission: "to raise awareness about issues I care about," he said, from our thin-obsessed culture to global warming. He seems to have found the perfect job to do that.
As a digital artist who majored in marketing at the University of Pittsburgh, he comes up with a provocative idea or question, studies it, and then provides Internet aggregators — in this case Mydeals.com — with visual content that they post on their sites. Those images in turn get picked up on media websites, spurring commentary — and maybe even outrage — and gets the aggregators a mention.
Mr. Lamm has created other social content for the Internet, which can be found on his website, www.nickolaylamm.com, but nothing has made as much of an impact as "Average Barbie."
"Ever since she started getting traction, I've been interviewed by media outlets all over the world," he said. "It's kind of cool."
Maybe, but Mattel officials have been silent and didn't return a call requesting comment. They haven't sued, either, because "Average Barbie" is not for sale.
Mr. Lamm created it from a three-dimensional model, using measurements from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for an average 19-year-old girl, and then photoshopped the image.
"If I tried to sell an 'Average Barbie,' I'd call it something different, obviously," Mr. Lamm said. "They haven't contacted me, and I'm pretty sure they want this story to go away."
Mattel is probably not sweating it too much. Barbie dolls have sold in the millions if not billions since her unveiling in 1959.
In 1997, Mattel introduced a new version with a larger waist and smaller chest, but she's still a target for groups trying to change how girls view their bodies, attracting notice, for example, from Rehabs.com, which treats anorexics.
That organization posted an online information campaign: "Dying to be Barbie: Eating Disorders in the Pursuit of the Impossible," which included an infographic showing how Mattel's Barbie would, indeed, be impossible in real life, with a 16-inch waist that is smaller than her head, and a head far too big for her tiny neck. There would be no room in her midsection for internal organs. Her legs are 50 percent longer than her arms, compared to the average woman's legs, which are 20 percent longer than her arms.
In fact, her ankles are so tiny she would have to crawl rather than walk.
Still, in a culture where four out of five 10-year-old girls say they worry about being "fat," according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, Barbie is still a big item on little girls' wish lists.
On the Toys R Us website, there were 302 Barbie-related items for purchase, most in varying shades of pink, with the usual fairy princess, mermaid and ballerina iterations, along with the "I Can Be" line (swim champion, U.S. president, etc.). There are Barbies for almost every country, for every profession, even "University" Barbies — ("Touchdown! In her school colors of crimson and cream, Barbie(R) doll is dressed to cheer on a Sooner victory," reads the blurb for University of Oklahoma Barbie).
"One of the reasons Mattel has done nothing is because Barbie continues to sell," noted Christine Whelan, visiting assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh, who specializes in body image issues and the sociology of gender. "If their business model were suffering they would do something about it."
Cultural norms for feminine beauty have gone through fat-and-thin cycles over the ages, she added. In the 1880s, as American society became more affluent, a voluptuous body became a sign of status, and women worried about being too thin.
"I have a poster in my office from the late 19th century advertising Corpula tablets, guaranteed to fatten you up," Ms. Whelan said.
In the '20s, a thin, boyish "flapper" style emerged, to be replaced during World War II and afterwards with the hourglass shape, and then, in the 1960s, a youthful, boyish figure was suddenly in again — remember Metrecal, baby boomers?
But in this era of cheap, readily available high-calorie food, a new paradox has emerged. Being thin is still in, even as Americans have gotten heavier every year with no change in sight.
"It costs more to eat less and go to the gym and have all the social support necessary to be skinny," Ms. Whelan said. "Skinny is a luxury item — it means you can afford to eat more fresh vegetables."
The average-sized woman, she said, is a size 14, "which would not have been considered average 30 years ago, but would have been 100 years ago. The thin body image is here to stay."
For mothers hoping to counter that message, good luck: "Average Barbie" is, as of now, just a mirage on your computer screen.
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