Slumber Party Barbie: Always in Fashion?
The year is 1965, and it’s a little girl’s 6th birthday. As she unwraps present after present, she squeals with delight as the treasures pile up. A new hair comb, a warm pair of gloves, hair ribbons, and a set of colored pencils are among the riches from her friends and family. Finally one gift remains, wrapped in pink paper and tied with a purple bow. The little girl races to unwrap it and gasps when she sees what the package contains. It’s Slumber Party Barbie™ and she couldn’t be more thrilled. All of the girls in her class have the doll, and now she can’t wait to bring her new Barbie in to school to show them! With the silky haired icon comes an accessory set including a pink satin robe, hair curlers and a pajama set. But what Barbie would be complete without a matching pink scale permanently set at 110 lbs. to keep her slim and fit? Oh and better yet, Slumber Party Barbie™ comes with her very own diet book, solely containing the advice “Don’t eat!”
That 6-year-old girl was my aunt and she, like the other women from her generation, grew up receiving a very strict message from society about the definition of beauty. This message could be both obvious (“Don’t eat!”) and subtle (the slenderness of Barbie’s body, her scale a stern warning to maintain one’s girlish figure). As a result of this message, little girls grew up feeling badly about themselves for being “lesser” and “not as pretty” as the plastic playmates they idolized.
In the many years that have passed since 1965, things have changed. Well, at least on the surface. Images of different races, body types, ethnicities, sexual preferences, and social classes offered to society by the media are proof of that. But still, the default definition of beautiful seems, beneath the changes, to be the same. Try doing a Google Image search of the phrase “beautiful girl” and what pops up? Images of slender, mostly white girls with long silky hair posing in often seductive positions. These images are not ones that represent how the majority of the women in the country look, but they do affect them by suggesting that their bodies are flawed.
The problem with today’s fashion industry, the purveyor of many of these images, is that it is heavily influenced by a narrow, male-centric standard of beauty. It seems that those who grew up with Slumber Party Barbie™ were profoundly affected by what the doll embodied. Commercials, advertisements and movies that objectify women are more often than not catering to men and their desire to see women in a certain way. Now, this isn’t saying that men are the sole perpetrators of this. Women have internalized a male perspective of what attractive women ought to look like. Such narrow views of beauty undermine the self-esteem of women who don’t fit into those categories, and instill damaging lessons within children, as seen by our friend Barbie and her trusty diet book and scale. The destructive messages produced by the fashion industry also affect men. They stop men from being able to search and learn how to define “beauty” on their own terms, when it comes to women and relationships.
Because of the objectification and exploitation that accompanies the fashion industry, it’s intriguing that it is run by so many women who work as designers, photographers, editors, and of course, models. Is it possible to be a feminist while working in this industry? And if so, how come so many women and feminists do so? An article by Minh-Ha T. Pham entitled “If the Clothes Fit: A Feminist Takes on Fashion” (Ms. Blog) answers that question. Pham argues, “If feminists ignore fashion, we are ceding our power to influence it.” I agree with this statement completely. I think that if feminists turned their back on the fashion industry because of the way it exploits and objectifies women, than they would be giving up the opportunity to use its influence as a way of bettering the way women are viewed in society.
Although I am not currently a feminist in the fashion industry, I can imagine being one. I can imagine sitting down to a meeting to discuss the latest spring line, or the fall’s hottest shoes. And what I hope would happen is that a conversation ensues, one that asks questions like “Will this radiant dress help a woman to feel confident and powerful?” or “Will this fabulous blue jacket inspire someone to feel proud of their body?” If I am ever lucky enough to have a daughter, I certainly will not be buying her Slumber Party Barbie™, a doll that would teach her that to be “beautiful,” she needs to change. Instead, I’ll be exposing her to as many situations as I can in which powerful women come in all the different shapes, colors, and sizes, all of which should be considered beautiful.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Kahn, Ellie. "Slumber Party Barbie: Always in Fashion? ." 2 December 2014. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on August 22, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/slumber-party-barbie-always-in-fashion>.