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What would a real life Barbie look like?

Barbie - US fighter pilot, rapper, olympic swimmer, sign language teacher...

By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

She turns 50 on Monday, but Barbie has a remarkable figure for a woman of any age. So what if you scaled her up to human proportions?

For a woman celebrating her half-century Barbie is remarkably unchanged from the young, fresh-faced Wisconsin girl who first came into the world on 9 March, 1959. And that's the problem.

Barbie Millicent Roberts is a woman with a very controversial reputation and mostly it stems from her long legs, tiny waist, ample bosom, slender neck and flowing blonde locks.

Some argue her body shape would be unobtainable and unsustainable if scaled up to life-size. They claim she would not be able to stand up because her body frame would be so unbalanced. A real life Barbie would simply fall over.

Libby and Barbie
Real life model Libby (left) and Barbie

Can this be true? Her maker, Mattel, says it has never scaled her vital statistics to real-life dimensions. Of those who have - usually critics or academics - no one has come up with a definitive answer as to exactly what her measurements would be.

Serious research on the subject has drawn certain conclusions. Academics from the University of South Australia suggest the likelihood of a woman having Barbie's body shape is one in 100,000. So not impossible, but extremely rare. Researchers at Finland's University Central Hospital in Helsinki say if Barbie were life size she would lack the 17 to 22% body fat required for a woman to menstruate. So again, not an unachievable figure, but certainly not a healthy one.

But the vital statistics they used in their studies are not readily available. Mattel has a standard set of measurements for Barbie, but dolls can vary slightly so any self-respecting researcher would measure one themselves.

Do the maths

So, one trip to the toy shop and one measuring session with "Tricky Triplets Barbie" later, these are the vital statistics the Magazine was left with:

  • bust 4.6ins (11.6cm)
  • waist 3.5ins (8.9cm), and
  • hips 5ins (12.7cm)

Next, step forward our real life model, Libby, aged 27 - who is a slim, but unremarkable size 10/12. Applying Barbie's proportions to Libby's body yields some interesting results.

Barbie and real woman

If Libby's waist size of 28ins (71.1cm) were to remain unchanged, then applying Barbie's proportions to her would mean Libby shoots up in height, to an Amazonian at 7ft 6ins (2.28m) tall. That's just two inches shorter than the world's tallest woman, Yao Defen. She would also have hips measuring 40ins (101.6cm) and a bust of 37ins (83.9cm).

But what if, instead, Libby's height of 5ft 6ins (1.68m) was to remain unchanged. Doing the maths, Libby would have an extraordinarily tight waist of just 20ins (50.8cm), while her bust would be 27ins (68.5cm) and her hips 29ins (73.6cm). Even the famously slight Victoria Beckham reportedly only has a 23ins (58.4cm) waist. But neither are they unheard of - Brigitte Bardot was famous for her 20ins (50.8cm) waist.

Brigitte Bardot
Famed for her 20ins waist - model Brigitte Bardot

"People keep repeating this suggestion that Barbie would fall over and have to crawl around if she was real size, but it's just not the case," says Moira Redmond, writer and Barbie fan. "I find this suggestion more misogynistic than anything Barbie is accused of standing for. It's a nasty, sexual image.

"I've done my own calculations and she definitely doesn't have the dimensions of most people, but they are no means grossly abnormal. I'm sure the measurements of baby dolls aren't accurate but no one criticises them."

But others insist the proportions are unrealistic at best and damaging at worst.

"Barbie's body shape and proportions are among the many things that play up to this 'thin ideal' which is ubiquitous these days," says Professor Janet Treasure, an expert on body size and image at the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London. "The promotion of dolls with such a body shape, and other things like size zero, have wider public health implications, like an increased risk of eating disorders."

Human Barbie

But one walking, talking "doll" says there's nothing wrong in wanting to be Barbie-like. Sarah Burge was dubbed the "real-life Barbie" by the press after having plastic surgery reportedly worth £500,000. She has run with the idea, making a lucrative career out of marketing herself as a life-size version of the doll.

Sraha Burge, before and after surgery
Sarah Burge has had plastic surgery worth 500,000 to look Barbie-like

"I actually agree she would probably look a bit freaky if life size but as a doll she looks fantastic," she says. "There's nothing wrong in using her as a role model when it comes to looks, as well as attitude to life. At the end of the day you don't see a personality from across a room do you.

"It's empowering for women to be who they want to be and not just live with the body and face they were born with."

And women might be justified in feeling more undermined by the Barbie phenomenon than men. Take Ken - Barbie's long-time model consort. When researchers at the University of South Australia scaled up Mr Barbie to life-size proportions, they concluded that the chances of a man having his body shape is one in 50.

That's a lot more achievable than one in 100,000, giving weight to the argument that pressure is put on girls and women to be an unrealistic size.

But as Ken knows, a good body is no guarantee of happiness. Barbie dumped him on Valentine's Day in 2004, after dating him for more than 43 years. Love her or hate her, she's an independent woman.

Thanks to Jan Winter, lecturer at Bristol University, for checking our maths.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I'm sure part of Barbie's problem if she were life-sized would be the extremely small size of her feet. She would surely have a hard time staying upright on those tiny feet with those enormous breasts.
Becky, Iasi, Romania

Why do we assume that girls are so impressionable compared to boys? My brother recently received a Ben 10 doll, should I be worried my brother will grow up wanting plastic surgery to look like an alien villain?
Bethan, Cardiff

Enough with the "thin women have no breasts" and "big breasts must be fake" misconceptions. I'm 5'8", I have a 28 inch waist, and a significant cup F bust that, yes, really is all mine and not Dr Plastic's. I have size 3 feet, and I manage to walk just fine.
Mandy, Amsterdam

She is a doll. My daughter had about five Barbie and family/friends and she played with them the same way she played with her teddy-bears and knew these were just toys. Children love to play pretend and isn't it a good way to develop their imagination? So many parents find something wrong while the children just enjoy playing and pretending.
Alma, Port Elizabeth, South Africa

Perhaps Barbie should have more hobbies - like running instead of shopping.
Michael, Sydney

I much prefer the shape and style of Barbie to the Bratz dolls. Barbie the doctor, Barbie the surfer, Barbie the sports champion, Barbie the homemaker, Barbie the princess bride... All I seem to see of the Bratz dolls are their plastic knee-high boots, mini skirts and unconscious desire to become single teen mothers. Is THAT empowering?
Sarah, Brisbane, Australia

When I was a lad, I had a toy Action Man. He had scars, wore army fatigues, was tall, muscular and had dark looks. I played out many boyhood dreams of war games, being a spy and fighting my friends toys. Today, I'm fair haired, have no scars, work in the government and have a large waistline. Beyond my childhood, I've not felt the urge to emulate him and if there has been any outside pressure to do so, I have unconsciously resisted it remarkably well. On the other hand, I still find Bridgette Bardot sexy.
Stephen Carey, Belfast

Several generations of girls have now played with Barbies, and yet grown into women who are more than ever educated, accomplished, competitive in all industries, involved in politics and governments. So I would like to see a psychological research paper proving that Barbie has a negative effect on young girls' development. Only an anterior psychological problem could cause a person to want to model themselves to the image of a toy. As long as a child is brought up in a well-structured environment and has strong real-life female and male role models to look up to, it is irrelevant to question whether her dolls are called Barbie, Bratz or Polly.
Liz, Hull

It's not about her being a "role" model, it's about the clothes. No-one gets to wear gowns and outfits like Barbie, we live lies of quiet desperation. Never enough money, never looking quite good enough or smart enough. But Barbie can and does.
Lorin Dana, Mattituck, US

I used to be very critical of Barbidom. Now I have two daughters under six and I understand it better. Barbie is a caricature, folks. She's almost like a superhero. I'm pretty sure my girls don't expect to look like Barbie any more than I expect to look like Superman. And as far as her attitude? It's pretty good, I'd say. She likes lot of different things, she's friendly... I wouldn't be surprised if she's into continual education and reads the BBC web site. I'm OK with Barbie.
Mr Koppa, Viroqua, US

Right. So? Did anyone say that Barbie is supposed to represent a real person? She is a toy. Certainly no-one seems to be making similar complaints that Fred Flintstone presents children an unachievable role model - although his proportions similarly cannot be reproduced on a real human being.
Mike Hall, Liverpool, UK

Ok, let's assess the woman's logic who has surgery to look like Barbie: 'It's empowering to change your looks and not settle for what you are born with.' Does she even know what empowering means? Somehow I doubt it. It is the very antithesis of empowering to go to such lengths to conform to a sexist stereotype of sexualised feminine appearances that you actually have surgery. This is a great example of how women are socialised into gender stereotypes for social approval and then defend their actions as 'empowering' when they clearly have no education in what that word means when applied to female emancipation.
A Taylor, Royal Leamington Spa

I had to laugh at Sarah Burge's quote "There's nothing wrong in using her as a role model when it comes to looks, as well as attitude to life." Exactly what is Barbie's attitude to life? She is after all an inanimate bit of plastic. Does Sarah lay around until someone comes in and dresses her and moves her arms and legs?
Laura, Plymouth

I think you only have to look at the Simpsons episode, featuring Lisa's "doll idol", Malibu Stacey, to see the absurdity of using dolls like this as a role model for looks or aspirations.
Glenn Willis, Lyme Regis, England

This is ridiculous. Girls, even grown women have been fed this idea that it's desirable to look undernourished and stick thin and end up with eating disorders trying to achieve it. Role models start at a very early age, dolls, magazines, fashion shows all contribute to this nonsense and the people responsible should be held to account. Our kids should have a safe, sensible idea of being healthy and everyone is responsible to help them learn this.
Martin, High Wycombe, Bucks.

Is Barbie meant to be a fully grown woman though? She is meant to appeal to young girls, so it makes sense that she shares some features with them, such as being skinny with small hips, in order to engage more with her audience and make it easier for her players to project themselves onto her. While also having some aspirational features of an adult woman, like a larger bosom. Maybe this is why she was so successful.
Russ, Edinburgh, UK

You want to see dolls with unusual proportions? Check out the dolls called Blythe that I collect. Brings a whole new dimension to the phrase 'lollipop head.' And for the record, I am 29 and have a successful career - my early (and ongoing) love of dolls has in no way disempowered me.
Felicity Matthews, Leeds

Barbie dolls came after my time, but when I first saw one, I thought it looked completely weird. It wasn't so much the thinness of it, it was the big breasts. Thin women have minimal breasts. You can see women approximating the Barbie look, but they do it through breast surgery. It horrifies me that children are given role models that require them to starve themselves AND have cosmetic surgery.
Jo Edkins, Cambridge, UK

So there should be over 10,000 natural Barbie like women out there? You'd think at least one of the would get a bit of media attention.
Tobi, London

What's next? Bratz dolls give girls unrealistic expectations of head size?
David Ricketts, Didcot, UK

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