“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”
~ Henry David Thoreau
Confession: When I saw the recent elephant article about the new Barbie with average proportions, my first reaction was, “She needs to cut back on the beer and wings nights with Ken.”
It’s no surprise that I immediately went there, since this new Barbie and I share pretty much the same dimensions, and when I look at my “average proportioned” frame in the mirror, I think I look fat too.
Which begs the question, what do I see when I see the classic Barbie—the one with the 16 inch-if-she-were-a-live-girl waist?
Before I got a gander at the updated version of this iconic doll, I would have said, “It’s just Barbie. No one thinks that’s what actual women are supposed to look like.”
I would have argued that her feet are obviously too small to stand on, her neck is clearly no more stable than a Twizzler, and her long, long legs seem to be the result of nothing less than that medieval torture device, the “stretcher” which did to human bodies exactly what it sounds like it would do.
And yet, is Barbie’s original, unlikely shape the shape I always hope to see when I look at my own reflection?
I remember being at the gym once, years ago, and seeing what I thought was a girl with the perfect figure: On the tall side, very thin, with big breasts. I watched her enviously from a safe distance as she marched on the Stairmaster, her perfectly flat stomach glistening with sweat.
Later, after I’d collected my son from the kid center to meet up with some other moms at the gym pool, I saw her again. She was still pretty far away, this time in a bikini, and I felt my heart sink. I never appear in public (or in private, now that I think about it) in a swimsuit myself, and her presence, her body, in that teeny tiny bikini made me clutch my cover up around me in shame.
The fact that she obviously had a bunch of kids only made it worse—she wasn’t some young girl, she was a mom, just like me, but she still looked like that. I tried to act as if nothing was bothering me, but I could feel her there, being all thin and perfect, burning like a canker sore directly on my brain.
At some point, my son stubbed his toe on the bottom of the pool and rushed towards me wailing. I didn’t have a Band-Aid so I was forced to sweep him up in my arms and walk right past my tormentor, since she happened to be sitting next to the nearest lifeguard.
I braced myself as I approached. I felt my thighs rub against each other as I lumbered along, trying to appear nonchalant. I got to the lifeguard and asked him for help, and while he climbed down to get his first aid box, I snuck a peek at Miss Perfect.
And then I realized there was something horribly wrong with both of us.
She couldn’t have weighed more than 90 pounds and she was at least 5 foot 8. Her face was wan, and her eyes beneath her sun hat looked hollow. I could easily make out the silhouette of her bones directly underneath her skin, and I winced when I noticed she had bruises everywhere. Her breasts, the breasts I had coveted from 10 yards away, were obviously fake, and looked like two overgrown grapefruit hanging awkwardly from her rib cage.
Knowing me, you’d think I would be happy to discover she wasn’t the goddess I’d made her out to be, but in fact, I just felt sick.
We were both sorry creatures, feeding ourselves a steady diet of self hatred.
It strikes me now, this girl probably had the closest proportions to a Barbie that it’s possible for an actual human to have, so I’m not as immune to the insidiousness of Barbie’s message as I thought I was. Somewhere, in the not so deep recesses of my mind, I do covet classic Barbie’s ridiculous body—and I’m not the only one.
After I read the article about Average Barbie, I went online to do a little re-con on the subject of body dysmorphic disorder. I was wondering, exactly how twisted is my perception?
Evidently, very twisted.
I took self tests on at least 10 different web sites, and each one gave me the same result; I have raging BDD (body dysmorphic disorder).
And yet, I think it’s safe to say I am the rule rather than the exception:
Common questions to determine the presence and/or severity of BDD include:
(Answer yes or no)
1. I excessively worry about my physical appearance.
2. I often check my appearance in mirrors or other reflecting objects.
3. I frequently avoid mirrors or other reflecting objects.
4. I often use make up or clothing to camouflage my perceived flaws.
5. I regularly scrutinize other’s appearance for comparison.
6. I sometimes discuss my perceived flaw with others, or ask others to verify my perceived flaw.
7. I often seek reassurance from others about the appearance of my perceived flaw.
8. I often touch, pick or measure my perceived flaw.
9. I diet and/or only eat certain foods related to my perceived flaw.
What gives? Am I crazy or, based on what I imagine would be the typical answers to these questions, does our entire culture have BDD?
My sense is that it’s the latter—if that were’t the case neither Classic nor Average Barbie would exist, and neither would the firestorm of responses to both of them.
I really don’t know what the solution to our cultural sickness is. It certainly isn’t as simple as making a normal looking doll—though that helps start important conversations.
We—women and men—have a lot of looking in the mirror to do, and when we do it, I hope that we can be honest and kind and compassionate toward ourselves and everyone around us no matter what their size.
To take your own BDD test and see where you are on the spectrum, click here.
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Editor: Jenna Penielle Lyons
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