Over the last half-century, Barbie's cultural influence has almost been as exaggerated as her proportions. In the '90s, the average little girl in the United States owned at least one, likely spending hours tugging new outfits over Barbie's cartoonish, breast-like mounds and stuffing her stiff limbs into any household object that sort of resembled a convertible. But Barbie's plasticine shine is on the fade. And while she's fighting the PR war for her life, a new doll aims to put realistic, more malleable body images in the hands of little girls instead.
Here's the backstory: Last year, Nickolay Lamm, a Pittsburgh-based artist who specializes in the makings of Internet-friendly visualizations, designed what he called "Normal Barbie," an attempt to make the doll reflect more typical bodies. Using measurements of an average 19-year-old woman from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he then molded them to Barbie's 3-D model. The result went viral.
Now, just as Mattel has been ramping up a questionable "unapologetic" campaign for the doll—including featuring her in the latest Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition—Lamm has launched a crowdfunding site to produce 5,000 "Lammily" dolls, models that feature average proportions, a light amount of makeup, and bendy joints. It's an alternative, he says, to unrealistically thin dolls like Barbie, or the hyper-sexualized Bratz, which have traditionally dominated the market.
"I feel like there’s a very good chance that those types of dolls affect young girls," Lamm said. "If there’s a very good chance like that, and if the average sized doll can actually look good, like Lammily does, let’s make it then. If there's even a 10% chance that those dolls affect [body image], let's make it."
Researchers at the University Central Hospital in Helsinki, Finland found that if Barbie's proportions existed on a real human being, she wouldn't have the 17% to 22% body fat necessary to menstruate. And while it's difficult to gauge, there is some empirical evidence that Barbie could affect a girl's self-image: A 2006 study published in Developmental Psychology, for example, found that significantly more little girls exposed to images of Barbie (versus exposure to various picture books), reported being unhappy with their bodies and expressed the desire to be thinner then and as an adult.
There's no way to tell if it's the dissatisfaction with Barbie's form that has had an impact on Mattel's weakening sales numbers for the doll. Yet, in 2013, Barbie sales slumped by 6%, then showed a 13% drop from the previous year during the holidays. Last month, lead designer Kim Culmone also doubled down on Barbie's proportions in an interview with Co.Design's Mark Wilson, explaining away her starved proportions as necessary for the clothes, and asserting that the body image issue was moot.
But when I ask Lamm what he makes of Barbie's strange (and what Culmone would argue as necessary) proportions to service her clothes, he points to the fact that doll clothing could simply be thinner and more flexible. "I’m 100% sure there’s something called thinner materials, and that’s my response to [Mattel]. I actually put some Barbie clothes on my original model, and she looked pretty good."
Lamm will attempt to raise $95,000 to cover the cost of producing 5,000 Lammily dolls. But one of his main challenges will be to get kids to go for something new. Attempts at average-sized dolls in the past have failed to stick around, he says, but he guesses that's because the "average size" sloganeering wasn't appealing to kids. He's not planning on pressing that message.
"The key to differentiate is that my doll is a cool-looking doll that just happens to be average," he says. "Very few kids are concerned about body image like parents are. It would be like me trying to feed them broccoli."