Adios Barbie

Ah, Barbie. Hard to believe the old girl's pushing forty. I mean, look at her. She has thighs like number-two pencils. Her tan lasts all winter. And that pink Corvette has dropped some serious mileage. Then there's the fancy wardrobe, the townhouse, the swimming pool ... and she hasn't worked a day in her life.Okay, I know she has problems like the rest of us. Her boyfriend, I hear, can't perform too well. She had to have two ribs removed back in the '70s in order to retain that trademark hourglass figure. And she hasn't used the bathroom once in four decades.But you're busted, Babs. You've been found guilty of inspiring fourth-grade girls to diet, of modeling an impossible beauty standard, of clinging to homogeneity in a diverse new world. Welcome to the dollhouse, honey. Your time is up. Pack your bags and be outta the Dreamhouse by noon.At the turn of the millennium, body image is a national crisis among young women. Until now, there hasn't been a forum where women of diverse cultures and identities could gather to chronicle their experiences, to usher out the Barbie Era with pink champagne and a triumphant "adios."And the current national discussion of body image reflects this. To date, most literature continues to popularize the myth that distorted body image is merely a symptom of vanity suffered by bored, middle-class white girls. In 1995, Newsweek published results from a University of Arizona study that compared the body satisfaction of black and white adolescent girls. The gap in results was wider than the one between Barbie's thighs: 70 percent of the African-American subjects reportedly liked their bodies, while 90 percent of their white peers did not. While the black girls in the study described an ideal body as "full hips and thick thighs," perfection, according to the white girls, came in waifishly impossible dimensions: five-foot-seven and 100 to 110 pounds. The study's implied conclusion? Black girls have better body image than white girls do.That didn't sit right with many women I knew. We wondered what would have happened if the study had polled subjects on whether they liked their hair texture, their skin and eye color, their facial features. Moreover, what if the study had asked girls whether they felt safe or powerful in their bodies? The focus on weight failed to connect body image to racism and sexism -- to power. Class differences were not mentioned, nor was the history that may have shaped the subjects' varying ideals.But women's struggle with body image is about power. Body image goes far beyond weight, and it runs deeper than skin color. Our bodies have become arenas for feelings we don't deal with, for unresolved traumas and injustices. Scratch away the surface of "I'm so fat" and "I hate my hair," and you'll find a sister treading water in a melting pot simmering with every "ism" imaginable.This is difficult to articulate today, at a time when society has taken on the rosy blush of progressiveness. Are we empowered young women, or aren't we? Our inability to answer this question definitively is a natural offshoot of a capitalist, media-driven society that serves young people a daily diet of mixed messages. Society adopts the "girl power" mantra but refuses to arm girls with the tools to achieve it. Textbooks glorify violence and war, but schools won't properly educate students about safe sex, reproductive health, self-defense and abuse. Multiculturalism is the new media buzzword, but laws upholding it are dismantled while we watch Yo! MTV Raps and read Vibe magazine. Young women are encouraged to follow rather than to lead, to become passive consumers rather than active creators of our culture and our destinies.Our bodies -- and our convoluted relationships with them -- tell the real story. In a world that offers women challenges along with choices, compromise along with control, our bodies may seem the only realm where we can claim sovereignty. So we focus our power there. We start with what we can control -- sorta. Our bodies. Our hair. Our weight. Our breasts. Our clothes. When this control inevitably eludes us, our feelings of powerlessness solidify.Too often, the endless body chase becomes a distraction from a painful reality. Trauma survivors talk about "leaving their bodies" as a survival tactic during violation. For some women, feeling like we're "in our bodies" convinces us we exist. In a twisted way, intense body focus is the one thin thread connecting us to the material world. But gaining a sense of place in our bodies should ultimately build our sense of place in the world. It should be a means of healing, rather than escaping from pain. We need to feel connected to our bodies, to understand what they can do. Sometimes, this even means pushing them to new comfort zones. Can we do this with balance? That's the big question.Young women are attempting to answer this question with a resounding "yes" by showing that our bodies can be our allies. Rather than simply shun the idea of being defined by our appearances, young women today include our bodies as part of our multilayered self-definitions. In a world that still tries to assume our identities, we rebel with an outward expression of self. Our passion for the truth, in all its messy complexity, compels us to visibly defy easy categories and sweeping labels, even if they were created from within. Rather, we rush to show the world who we are, instead of allowing it to paint us as one-dimensional characters. So instead of declaring "black is beautiful," a young African-American woman today is more likely to ask, Why does this world assume I'm "too black" or "not black enough"? Who defines blackness anyway?Everything is up for questioning today -- the media, our identities, each other, the very concept of beauty. The answer to the body image dilemma can't simply be to allow all women a place in the beauty structure. Sure, it's important to tell women of every size and color that they're beautiful and worthwhile people. But it's also fundamental to offer them a world where they are safe, valued and free from oppression. A world that values healing more than destruction, that seeks balance over domination.Today, a few brave women dare to imagine that world. They fight fire with fire, using their bodies to present a different image of beauty, of self. They risk alienation, harassment, even violence, to live as they truly are. And in doing so, they open up the possibility of a world that values difference instead of ignoring or degrading it, a world that embraces contradictions instead of erasing them.We don't need easy answers, preachy testimonials or sensationalized stories. Just a collection of recipes for clarity, light, a little self-love. A range of women's stories that chart their struggles to accept -- and celebrate -- the parts of their bodies that make them different, distinctive.In a culture still mesmerized by an unnatural beauty standard, these simple tales of self-acceptance are heroic deeds, brave acts of resistance. By daring to speak the truth, women can treat the world to a dose of shock therapy, showing that beauty comes in more colors, sizes and flavors than you'll find in a candy store.I hope that more stories lift taboos, and ultimately propel women into a firm belief in our entitlement. We are entitled to love our bodies at any size. We are entitled to speak, act, create and feel safe wherever we go. We are entitled to resources, and to a real place in this culture. We are entitled to take off the rose-colored glasses; the world ain't always pink and pretty. And we are entitled to say so -- out loud.So take an about face, if you will, and confront head-on whatever you're running from. Start at the mirror. Take a good, hard look at the part of your body you fear the most, and tell it who's boss. Then give it all the love you've got. Instead of putting all your resistance into the leg press machine, focus some on the culture that directs our best energies into body-hating pursuits. Life is an opportunity for joy and celebration. How can our lives be full if our stomachs aren't? How can we understand life's gifts when we're too blinded by our own perceived inadequacies to appreciate them?Many women have yet to discover a hidden truth: Self-acceptance is not defeat. It's a way of plugging ourselves into the organic process of life. It's the entrance ramp to discovering our true power, which is rooted in who we are. When our bodies and identities are in tune, they reflect each other. This beautiful synchronicity hums with an energy that affects everything and everyone it touches. It changes the culture. And _that_ is true girl power.Hasta la vista, Barbie. Ophira Edut, 26, is the Associate Editor of Ms. and the founder of HUESmagazine. "Adios, Barbie," her first book, is a multicultural young women'sbody-image anthology.REQUIRED TAG: Reprinted from "Adios Barbie," edited by Ophira Edut and published by Seal Press.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

Close
alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.