Co.Design

Barbie's Lead Designer Defends Barbie's Crazy Proportions

Barbie's unrealistic proportions are a standard talking point around body image. For the first time, Barbie's lead designer fires back.

During a recent visit to Mattel’s design headquarters in Los Angeles, I was invited into the Barbie design studio. At first glance, it’s a sea of cubicles like any other. Then you notice the hundreds of dismembered Barbie heads peeking up over the dividers, and, of course, the pink. Pantone 219 crops up everywhere it can. Like a resilient weed growing straight from the corporate carpeting, pink sprouts in X-Acto knives, Post-it notes, and clutch purses. A bit of Barbie’s influence permeates everything. (One young designer even confessed to me that before the job she never really wore pink, but now she felt the need to accessorize with Barbie.)

Image via Mark Wilson.

But while the omnipresent pink propaganda is infectious, Barbie’s designers were anything but the Stepfordian dictatorship seeking to deliberately crush a young girl’s body image as critics may assume. Like all of the designers I met at Mattel, they were nice, enthusiastic people who wanted to make kids happy and worked hard to do so--which made it particularly difficult to pull aside Kim Culmone, vice president of design for Barbie, after her tour and ask the dark question looming inside so many of us:

Image via Flickr user Elizabeth Albert]

Co.Design: What's your stance on Barbie's proportions?

Culmone: Barbie’s body was never designed to be realistic. She was designed for girls to easily dress and undress. And she’s had many bodies over the years, ones that are poseable, ones that are cut for princess cuts, ones that are more realistic.

It’s primarily the 11.5-inch fashion doll size we change over time, depending on the needs of the product. There are some that her legs don’t even bend. There are some that her arms are straight. Primarily it’s for function for the little girl, for real life fabrics to be able to be turned and sewn, and have the outfit still fall properly on her body.

So to get the clean lines of fashion at Barbie’s scale, you have to use totally unrealistic proportions?

You do! Because if you’re going to take a fabric that’s made for us, and turn a seam for a cuff or on the body, her body has to be able to accommodate how the clothes will fit her.

Image via Flickr user Melanie Tata

But we’re constantly working on new sculpts, new bodies, it’s a continual evolution for us.

It’s not a closed conversation?

No. Though there’s also the issue of heritage. This is a 55-year-old brand where moms are handing clothes down to their daughters, and so keeping the integrity of that is really important.

Everything may not always be able to fit every doll, but it’s important to me that the majority of it does, because that was my experience as a little girl. There’s an obligation to consistency. Unless for some reason in the future, there’s a real reason to change the body--because of either a design imperative or functional imperative--heritage is important to us.

Would you ever release a Barbie that was a more realistic proportion? Or could that not be a Barbie because the fashion wouldn't be the same on her?

It would depend on the objective. So to me, there isn’t an objective to change the proportion of Barbie currently. And to little girls, they are putting themselves in that doll anyway. You have to remember that girls’ perceptions are so different than grown ups’ perceptions about what real is and what real isn’t, and what the influences are.

You don’t think there’s a body comparison going on when you’re a girl?


I don’t. Girls view the world completely differently than grown-ups do. They don’t come at it with the same angles and baggage and all that stuff that we do. Clearly, the influences for girls on those types of issues, whether it’s body image or anything else, it’s proven*, it’s peers, moms, parents, it’s their social circles.

When they’re playing, they’re playing. It’s a princess-fairy-fashionista-doctor-astronaut, and that’s all one girl. She’s taking her Corvette to the moon, and her spaceship to the grocery store. That is literally how girls play.

*A 2006 University of Sussex study concludes that thin dolls like Barbie "may damage girls’ body image, which would contribute to an increased risk of disordered eating and weight cycling."

[This interview was condensed and edited.]

[Image: Barbie via Flickr user Tracheotomy Bob]

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82 Comments

  • Kyle Lee Mutstunaki

    I am sick and tired of some of you moms bitching about how Barbie is such a problem. If it's not her ethnicity, it's her body and if it's not that either you nitpick at something else. When in all fact and truth.... I'll make it simple for you-if you don't like Barbie dolls don't buy them for your damn daughters!!! Duh!!! I love her because she comes in several shapes to fit the needs of the different target markets. She's an inspiration to me as she made me realize how much of a passion for fashion i have. Don't hate on her!!!

  • Teresa Lynn Tomsic

    I think its a good idea, for once..I dont care for the faces,the faces look so tired and not attractive...The only thing that drove me away from Barbie yrs ago ,(and I collect dolls),is the legs..They are articulated, they dont bend like they used to, with the rubber kind of legs, now its hard plastic legs,to me I hate that! I thought Barbie was trying to save money on that part.We all need 1 thing, and I ask you to think about bringing back SOME Barbies with the rubber bendable legs..Ill buy them again. Thanks so kindly, Tess

  • "Barbie’s body was never designed to be realistic. She was designed for girls to easily dress and undress." As a parent whose daughter plays with Barbie, I've got to call bullshit on this. Getting Barbie dressed and undressed has required a ridiculous amount of adult help over the years. If the objective is truly to make the doll easier to play with, Mattel should have followed the "functional imperative" a long time ago to address that issue.

    Also, if Barbie's clothes were made of fluid fabrics, instead of cheaper stiffer textiles, draping on a different doll body shape would look just fine.

    Barbie's body shape as a constant is probably an economic design constraint for the company. Retooling the manufacturing would be expensive.

    Doubling down on excuses that insult parents' intelligence, however? That costs nothing.

  • Allie Thek

    [ don’t. Girls view the world completely differently than grown-ups do. They don’t come at it with the same angles and baggage and all that stuff that we do. ]

    I just can't say anything to this but fuck you. As someone who has had body image issues since they were a little girl and will probably spend the rest of her life battling eating disorders, fuck you.

  • Kyle Lee Mutstunaki

    You sound stupid-how is that Barbie's fault that you don't love yourself? She didn't cause you to have a disorder, she also doesn't make you eat or stop you from eating. That's not her problem its yours.

  • Allie Thek

    [ don’t. Girls view the world completely differently than grown-ups do. They don’t come at it with the same angles and baggage and all that stuff that we do. ]

    I just can't say anything to this but fuck you. As someone who has had body image issues since they were a little girl and will probably spend the rest of her life battling eating disorders, fuck you.

  • Karlynn O'Neil

    I really enjoyed this article. I'm a Barbie fan. Barbie's market hit me at an appropriate age and was wildly influential to my childhood. I've also recognized "body image" issues in my life. Three years ago my perspective of my appearance changed dramatically and I decided to get healthier. I lost 80 lbs through choosing simple healthier habits. After I lost the weight EVERYTHING about the way people treated me changed. Oh, it's still bittersweet. I don't blame Barbie for any of the unhealthy attitudes or perceptions I grew up believing. They were largely due to a cultural stew of the environment. In fact, I praise Barbie for allowing me an imaginative escape from the stresses I endured growing up in an image fixated suburban community. I also did see Barbie as a role model for ambition. I'm a very active creative career oriented person who has overcome many obstacles. Thanks Barbie for hanging out with me while my mom was busy getting divorced. I needed that.

  • Sally Beth Edelstein

    Why should Barbie be as standardized as a big mac? Americans have long had an ideal body type when it comes to women, but the shape itself has gone back to the drawing board every few years altering dramatically. Go figure. "Don't you want a body you won't be ashamed of?" was a question asked in a 1950s ad is one every woman can understand, but that headline was for an ad to gain weight, not lose it http://wp.me/p2qifI-k2

  • Sally Beth Edelstein

    Why should Barbie be as standardized as a big mac? Americans have long had an ideal body type when it comes to women, but the shape itself has gone back to the drawing board every few years altering dramatically. Go figure. "Don't you want a body you won't be ashamed of?" was a question asked in a 1950s ad is one every woman can understand, but that headline was for an ad to gain weight, not lose it http://wp.me/p2qifI-k2

  • I am guessing most of the postive feedback is from men....not women. I got my first Barbie at 7 and, from what I remember, we (even boys) compared our bodies to both Barbie and Ken dolls. Yes, we dressed them and played with them, but we also took great notice of their bodies as compared to ours. The fantasy part is just that...we wanted to be just like those plastic models. They were supposed to be "anatomically correct" as was printed in articles back in the 50's and 60's. So this fabricated rationale, by what I have just read, is more fantasy than anything I have read in a long, long time.

  • I am guessing most of the postive feedback is from men....not women. I got my first Barbie at 7 and, from what I remember, we (even boys) compared our bodies to both Barbie and Ken dolls. Yes, we dressed them and played with them, but we also took great notice of their bodies as compared to ours. The fantasy part is just that...we wanted to be just like those plastic models. They were supposed to be "anatomically correct" as was printed in articles back in the 50's and 60's. So this fabricated rationale, by what I have just read, is more fantasy than anything I have read in a long, long time.

  • I played with Barbies when I was a girl and I never compared my own body with the Barbie doll. I saw the doll portions as I would a cartoon. You don't go around in real life thinking "why isn't that bunny really tall and skinny and walking on two feet and talking?" (Ahem, Bugs Bunny). Give girls some credit for being smart. They aren't looking at cartoons and dolls for guidance on how they should view their bodies, they are looking to the REAL women in their lives.

  • I believe when it all comes down to it, Barbie is right.

    Little girls don't play like that. Most are not thinking about or generally comparing their bodies, to Barbies. Primarily for the fact that Barbie is a grown woman. Little girls understand Barbie is a grown up woman very clearly but again, it's not so much a consideration while little girls are playing.

    And being frank, I would rather my daughter strive to be more like Barbie versus being fat and unhealthy. --Sure, Barbie knows damn well her proportions are outrageous. Thats the "heritage" of Barbie. Its kind of laughable. Especially within the fashion world. Barbie is the iconic size. These old woman have been working with Barbie for years. A thin waisted beauty queen. An image of what it seems like most woman strive for anyways. But let me guess, we should blame Barbie?

    Oh and not to mention how Barbie has also inspired young girls right? To be doctors, to travel, to be smart, to strive for the best. GTFOH.

  • Ron Bradley

    I also was ALWAYS one to point out that the Barbie dolls shape was not realistic until I saw the old Hollywood movie Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in that movie made in 1954 look at the shape of the actress Julie Newmar she truly is the exact body of the old and new modern day Barbie doll!!

  • I believe when it all comes down to it, Barbie is right.

    Little girls don't play like that. Most are not thinking about or generally comparing their bodies, to Barbies. Primarily for the fact that Barbie is a grown woman. Little girls understand Barbie is a grown up woman very clearly but again, it's not so much a consideration while little girls are playing.

    And being frank, I would rather my daughter strive to be more like Barbie versus being fat and unhealthy. --Sure, Barbie knows damn well her proportions are outrageous. Thats the "heritage" of Barbie. Its kind of laughable. Especially within the fashion world. Barbie is the iconic size. These old woman have been working with Barbie for years. A thin waisted beauty queen. An image of what it seems like most woman strive for anyways. But let me guess, we should blame Barbie?

    Oh and not to mention how Barbie has also inspired young girls right? To be doctors, to travel, to be smart, to strive for the best. GTFOH.