Fashion Doll’s Legs Echo Unhealthy Image Stereotype
by Emily Brooks
The fashion doll’s body could never be held up by those legs—those legs that, though plastic, look emaciated, and are scrawnier than the faux fur coat-covered plastic arms. It’s funny because people often pinpoint Barbie-style dolls’ copious breasts or towering height or dangerously-low weight or nonfictional trachea or witchy pointed feet. Yet for this Lot Less Manhattan discount store’s fashion doll body, her legs stand out as the real concern.
What’s the implication of a doll named “Beauty” with resin toothpickian legs? On some very direct level, it’s stereotyping that being beautiful is looking like her. Her elongated thighs are just as bony as the calves; as a consumer, this repels me. Beauty has legs that take the stereotype of “attractive = thin and tall” to an unhealthy extreme. Twisted and crossed unnaturally, her legs are far too thin to bear her weight. It’s a similar discomfort to that associated with humanoid robots that look not quite, but almost, human, something known as the “Uncanny Valley” theory. A CNN article from a few years back posits that hyper-realistic animation, clowns, robots, zombies, and “photos of people with extreme plastic surgeries who don’t quite look real anymore” can all cause this effect which some brain researchers see as our minds catching a mismatch or error and alerting us.
Maybe this is what’s going on with Beauty for me. Perhaps as viewers, we recognize her leg proportions as impossible.
Sure, we’re already used to being bombarded with fashion models and celebrities with disordered eating and photo-shopped advertisements that take off healthy muscles, skin, and fat in a few clicks. As M. Gigi Durham, Ph.D. notes in The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and Five Keys to Fixing It (2008), “The media have seized on a body type that can be achieved only through artificial techniques and painstaking devotion to creating a certain body image” (p. 98). She writes a lot about Barbie dolls and how despite their impossible bodies, they morphed into the standard of feminine beauty. If Barbie’s stereotyped frame has become the new normal, this Beauty doll has to reach a whole new level of disturbing skinniness to even blip our radars. I looked at the latest of Mattel’s massively-popular Barbies and found that their legs looked more human. When Barbie dolls start to look like a positive role model for healthy weight, muscles, and body distribution, you know the problem is huge.
What’s the obsession with the legs? When women get complimented on “nice legs”, it’s all about thin and tall. The problem is that sometimes, the overemphasis on unrealistic proportions in the media makes girls and women think “My legs are ugly.” I’ve seen America’s Next Top Model candidates with thighs nearly thinner than their arms, watched a bony teenage dancer barely able to complete her routine from lack of muscles. I recall reading a chapter book as a teen that introduced me to the term “thunderthighs.” Even Emily Elizabeth, the yellow-haired girl who owns the famous giant pet Clifford the Big Red Dog, has problematic limbs. In Normal Bridwell’s original books, published starting in 1963, the eight-year-old’s body looked healthy, average, and strong enough to carry its own weight. By the time the beloved duo scored a spot on PBS as a children’s cartoon in 2000, Emily Elizabeth actually changed shape. Her arms and legs became about half as wide as they were before, and any baby fat or muscles disappeared.
When kids get a little older, some ditch their dolls, picture books, and cartoon shows for fashion magazines. Seventeen magazine’s website has a lot to say about legs. The magazine, which reached over 1,800,000 girls ages 12-15 in 2012 and surely other girls even younger as well, features articles, blurbs, and exercise videos for “toning” legs to make them “long”, “lean”, “awesome”, “sexy”, “amazing”, and “hot”. Then, says Seventeen, you can “feel confident the next time you wear shorts or a skirt.” Paradoxically, one of these videos about changing your legs is named “Love Your Legs”. Consider the deceptive pink ads for “#1 diet pills” listed under a leg workout article.
Because of stereotyped legs, people are so disappointed when they exercise because they develop muscles—if they look or feel “thicker”, that is easily interpreted as “fat.” On their blog about loving your body, Seventeen has filmed or printed several women who discuss “hating” their legs when they were younger because their legs were “pretty big”, “strong” and “muscular”. “I began to love my thighs when a friend told me they were pure muscle on the tennis courts, not the globs of fat I imagined them to be,” explained one girl in a “Bikini Peace” photo shoot. It’s saddening that stereotyping causes people to hate themselves simply for having healthy bodies, and it’s scary how much influence the media can have over disordered eating and poor body image.
Can there be a connection between the legs of wholesome picture book character, teen magazine personal trainers and celebrities, and a fashion doll named Beauty? The narrative is the same in Beauty’s pipecleaner-like legs, Emily Elizabeth’s television makeover and the faux self-acceptance rhetoric on Seventeen’s leg workouts. Certain legs get you more respect, even if they are unattainable. Perhaps especially if they are unattainable. This message comes from a harmful stereotype that tells us we can’t be beautiful unless we are unhealthy, weak, and unmuscular. The discount store doll’s legs are a big deal because they play into this subtle undermining of us as healthy, confident humans. Personally, I’ll always like any legs—person’s or doll’s—better when they’re comprised of normal, sturdy combinations of muscles and fat… not stereotypes.
Please check out more content by Emily Brooks at her blog Changing Perspectives About Gender, Sexuality, and Disability Through Writing.