The average Barbie alternative will bring another impossible ideal, and I'd rather carve my own wooden toys
Nickolay Lamm’s recent crowdfunding campaign to fund his production of an “Average Barbie” doll named Lammily received overwhelming support: 13,621 backers pledged $501,384, far exceeding Lamm’s goal of $95,000.
In July 2013, Lamm remarked upon the heightened body dissatisfaction, unhealthy eating behaviors, and desire to achieve a slim body to which Barbie may contribute. Through the use of CDC statistics of the average 19-year-old woman in America, Lamm created 3D-printed models of what he called “a normal woman.”
I grew up with a hundred Barbies and as many body image issues, but I’m not going to try to concoct causation from correlation. Since the age of fifteen, I’ve been on one dietary improvement kick or food makeover after another in an effort to kill the belly fat I can’t recall ever not having but have always known I was supposed to battle.
While Lamm’s project has received tremendous support, it’s also received, unsurprisingly, some push-back. In “Barbie isn’t ‘normal,’ but neither is Lammily, the new ‘it’ doll,” Jenee Osterheldt of The Kansas City Star has written an excellent piece detailing the problems with Lammily’s presentation. In her article, Kansas mom and personal trainer Erin Brown says,
“I don’t know that we have to have a doll that looks like every single person on the planet, but when we call this specific doll the Normal Barbie we’re sending a message to everyone who doesn’t look like her. What if she had another body type? What if she was bigger? What if she was black? Could we still call her Normal Barbie?”
A phenotypically Caucasian girl with a flat stomach and smooth, roll-free flesh, the Lammily doll is, as described by her website, “fit and strong,” a shape that “promotes a healthy lifestyle.” The doll is pitched as promoting “realistic beauty standards” because “The doll is made according to typical human body proportions.” Over and over, the site is marked with its slogan, “Average is beautiful.”
Lammily’s creator, Nickolay Lamm, responded to criticism in an article for the Huffington Post: “In the future, I see the Lammily line including dolls of different ethnicities and different healthy body shapes.”
Lamm’s response to criticisms of his focus on “average” beauty seems closer to a dodge than an answer:
"Some interpreted the crowdfunding campaign slogan 'Average is Beautiful' as a message of aspiring to mediocrity or creating a new societal standard. However, I see "average" as inclusive of all of us, not a standard which excludes. I want to show that reality is beautiful, that life is beautiful, and there should be a line of dolls, which reflects this fact.
I appreciate Lamm’s efforts and believe that his intentions are genuinely good. But I worry about Lammily’s celebration of the flattening of our differences, and I worry about one man’s assessment of “fit and healthy,” whether represented in a single doll or even the expansion to a line of dolls, being presented as the average beauty that should be striven for in place of Barbie’s unrealistic model. Despite Lamm’s lip service to diversity and to inclusivity, his products will function independently of him and may influence girls’ views of their own bodies.
Certainly, I don’t see myself in the doll’s proportions. I’ve always had a flat ass and, once puberty hit, a stubborn gut, whether at my skinniest or heaviest. My mom said our shape ran in the family; I’ve heard about the “commod bod,” a shape formed by American Indians’ reliance on low-quality foods. According to the ‘developmental origins of health and disease’ theory, “a wide range of environmental conditions during embryonic development and early life determine susceptibility to disease during adult life”—and this includes obesity and metabolic disease. A fetus experiencing poor nutritional conditions in utero can modify its development to prepare for a future without food, hoarding nutrients into adulthood. The effect may be able to travel across generations, and it makes weight loss onerous because sometimes, almost nothing—willpower, exercise, calorie deficits, food restrictions, pills, positive thinking—can whittle away the last stubborn midsection fat deposits. The body wants them because the body believe it will starve.
This is what I have believed about myself for some time. When I read about Lammily and saw her shape, I knew that while she may have been “average,” if young Elissa were playing with that doll, it might as well have been a Barbie—she might be “fit and healthy,” but no matter how many squats I do, I’ll never have that ass, and no matter how many minutes I hold a plank, I’ll never have those flat abs. I can't wish my fat to a different spot on my body, and "fit and healthy" looks different for me than for Lammily. The difference between Barbie and Lammily is that nobody ever told me that Barbie was supposed to be anything like me. We played pretend. Lammily inhabits a space somewhere between plastic and real, between the smoothed-out ideal and the statistical average.
When I was in college, I tried my best to eliminate my belly. It wasn’t really until I left home for Maryland, came into contact with all the bodies around me, and learned that the common predilections were for types unlike mine: I had always known that I wanted to be thin, but now I knew about “curvy,” a beauty ideal that did not apply to the voluptuous swell of my gut. My senior year, I restricted my diet so dramatically that, by BMI standards, I was underweight. Ribs began to emerge from the padding that had once covered my entire midsection. I got pale and sunken-eyed and my menstruation ceased. But even at my skinniest, I could not exorcise the small bulge haunting the flesh around my navel or the small love handles that persisted. I spent afternoons on my exercise ball, willing the fat into my ass, but it refused to budge. The year after this, I moved from Maryland to Seattle, enrolled in graduate school, and gained forty pounds. In the following years, I would lose and gain and lose and gain. I was a couple of pounds overweight until I was diagnosed with celiac disease and then went paleo. I allowed no photos when I was (according to the "Ideal Weight Calculators") overweight, so I can hardly remember it.
I thought this fat accumulation pattern on my midsection was genetic, an inalterable feature of my body, as unchangeable as my eye color. But recently I’ve come to believe that I might be wrong.
Higher levels of cortisol resulting from stress may have something to do with higher levels of abdominal fat. I’ve been stressed out for as long as I can remember: my bipolar symptoms started showing up well before I hit high school, I’m a perfectionist, and I’d rather take on more work than relax. Maybe, then, I could become “fit and healthy,” flat-stomached like a Lammily doll, strong and powerful, if only I could tone down my stress.
The Lammily doll troubles me because her maker is setting in plastic another definition of beauty that some of us may never be able to attain. We should all be part of the vision—not just dumped into the average. What does it mean to give a child a doll with a body shape that doesn’t conform to this standard of “fit and healthy”? Why give a child a shapely doll at all?
When I was a kid, I carved a doll for myself out of wood. Her torso was a block. Her arms and legs were attached by screws. She did not really look like a person. She was my favorite thing in the entire world. I decorated her dollhouse and made a world for her. To play with my doll was to imagine a world that did not exist, not to look to plastic for a model of the real.
By 2050, anyway, according to National Geographic, we'll have a whole new average to shift our dolls toward.