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.)
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:
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.
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.]