Photo via Instagram.

Does Barbie Really Need A CFDA Award?

The doll has represented an unrealistic beauty standard for 60 years.

by Emma Specter
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Jun 4 2019, 4:25pm

Photo via Instagram.

Like most women who came of age over the past half-century, I remember my first Barbie. She stared fixedly out of an acorn-sized plastic head, her flaxen locks a repudiation of my mud-brown bowl cut, her feet flexed into perpetual high-heeldom while mine were clumsily shod in Velcro. Her clothes, car, and aura were all the angry pink of an ear infection. Her sister was less hot than her. Her boyfriend was tan. I loved her as much as I hated myself.

Barbie turned 60 this year, though she doesn't look a day over immortality, and last night, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) honored her with a Board of Directors Tribute Award presented by Yara Shahidi. The honoree wore Diane von Furstenberg and shared the spotlight with the likes of Jennifer Lopez, Eileen Fisher, and Brandon Maxwell.

If you haven't kept up with Barbie's exploits since the advent of social media, it's worth taking a quick tour of her Instagram. The new Barbie cavorts through the Hollywood Hills in a clout pack; she sips lattes at Alfred beneath their somewhat cringe-inducing "But First, Coffee" slogan; she collaborates with Puma on a streetwear line and (help) signs up online for the Girlboss Rally.

In short, Social Media Barbie is the influencer's influencer. But what does it mean to honor Barbie, digitally prolific though she may be, with a CFDA award in 2019?

Body image is a fraught issue for Barbie, as it is for the fashion industry at large; a 1960s-era Barbie Slumber Party set came with a scale set to 110 pounds and a manual titled "How To Lose Weight." (Curious about the instructions therein? "DON'T EAT.") As you hopefully learned from your feminist aunt at some point during your childhood, Barbie's BMI is 35 pounds below the "healthy" range of a woman who stands at 5'9. According to a 2006 Developmental Psychology article, girls exposed to Barbie have reported "lower body esteem and greater desire for a thinner body shape than girls in the other exposure conditions."

Barb has classed up her act with regards to weight over the last few years, with curvy Barbies hitting the market in 2016, but the legacy of exclusion she represents isn't so easy to PR-stunt away. On a late-'80s-set episode of FX's Pose, house mother Elektra Abundance laments, "Fuck Barbie. They had Olympic Barbie, Malibu Barbie, doctor Barbie, all kinds of Barbies, but they only had one black Barbie. Christie. And she was still built like a white girl.”

Barbie has certainly gotten more racially and ethnically diverse since her inception—in her introduction, Shahidi even mentioned the importance of seeing Barbies who look like her—but it's telling that her Instagram avatar is still pale-skinned, platinum-haired and wasp-waisted. Plus, let's be honest, her current style is kind of washed, Jeremy Scott moment aside. Sure, she steps out in streetwear once in a while, but she primarily favors blah separates and the kind of "bold accessory" you might see advertised on Cupcakes and Cashmere. (A leather vest! Gasp!)

More so than "inclusion," maybe "relevance" is the key word to keep in mind when considering whether Barbie deserves to be recognized at the so-called fashion Oscars. The CFDA has a history of honoring artists who are truly innovating and changing the fashion game, from Telfar Clemens to Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss, but honoring Barbie—storied though her fashion legacy may be—feels like an oddly regressive move from a normally forward-thinking association. Sure, she may have defined how a woman should look in 1959, but is that really something we want to celebrate in 2019?