Before my older sister went away for college, she left me with her makeshift box of Barbie dolls in a moment that felt rather ceremonious. When she came back that first summer, she found that I had already split the legs apart, displaced the head from the body, and removed the left arm from its socket.
From dismantling Barbie’s plastic parts, I grew to dressing her up, giving her stories and changing her clothes to fit each new premise I made for her. Her blouse fit her waist just enough. Her heels slid through each foot with a silent click. There was no issue of political correctness or gender stereotyping—it felt like it was just me and that doll who happened to have blue eyes and blonde hair.
Several of us would admit to having Barbie as a part of our childhood. Besides the fortress of blankets and patintero in the streets, we would often retire to our homes, eager to create worlds for those dolls. When I turned eight or nine, the clear boxes they were encased in became untouched, slowly gathering dust from neglect. The forgetting grew with age, and eventually, the boxes had to be given away.
Years later, local conversations of women’s rights have sparked as news of Barbie’s new bodies—more realistic proportions for the doll—have spread. Was it from Barbie, a foreign, fair-skinned, blonde, with impossible body dimensions that I and many others derived my notions of beauty? If not, then from where and whom?
The origins of beauty
When we’re faced with the idea of beauty, we think about it in relation to our own skin and shape. Do our bodies hold close symmetry to what we consider beautiful? The thriving myth of Malakas and Maganda acts as invisible etched standards that we conform ourselves to, sometimes unconsciously. But even the various concepts of Maganda have been pondered on and revisited by philosophers and feminists alike.
Way before Barbie, in the pre-colonial age, there were stories of powerful women of the Mujer Indigena who held both enough economic and political power, some commanding armies while others spoke to gods. We were brown-skinned and dressed in colorful robes, marked by swift movements and involved in all matters of life, death, law, and war. The arrival of the fair-skinned Spaniards gave way to Western thought, which transformed the role of women from ecstatic members of society into a moving, inhibited body, fully clothed and covered. Women were shut in monasteries, in households—and in and beyond the duration of the Spanish regime—enslaved by the idea that white skin was the measure of social status.
The last decade of the 19th century marked the twilight of the Spanish regime, as well as a more liberal ideology. We were brought back to the workforce and enjoyed various freedoms, but it was also during this time that the pillars of Western beauty standards took shape. First it was the color of our skin, and then came the shape of our bodies.
In 1956, Ruth Handler created the first Barbie. In 1970, feminist movements in the Philippines like MAKIBAKA sprang up. During the 1972 Martial Law, the manufacturing of Barbie continued. Even when the feminist movement suffered and swayed, the year after that, Surgeon Barbie went on sale, part of an ongoing series of career-themed dolls. In a synthetic world, Barbie went to pursue different careers that countered our own reality.
Even in the milieu of political strife, the steam train of capitalism churned forward. “We were made to think we are lesser in the things that make us different. The way we look, our language, the way we think, our values, belief systems, religion. We were made to think that our own way is not the proper way. This could include the way we look, the way we dress, the way we express ourselves,” Rachel Parr of the Psychology Department says of the Western culture that has always held widespread influence over our way of thinking.
As these feminist movements formed and collapsed, the fair skinned “Coca-cola” body brought by media and colonial notions persisted. Without knowing, perhaps, the essence of the woman became encapsulated into those smooth plastic arms and tiny synthetic waist. She is a glass-cased Ideal, a far cry from the brown skin and colorful robes. Barbie is perpetuated in our heads by the desire to be like her, but at the same time, resented constantly for the elaborate and grueling ways in which our own reality stunts us from reaching that Ideal.
How far Barbie has gone and its implications
“Can you imagine if Barbie was made to look plain? Then it’s not attractive. When you’re [a] kid and you’re playing with your crayons, when it says red, it should only be one shade of red, the brightest shade of red,” Milette Zamora of the Marketing Department says. We see these bright shades of red in the way that many of us obsess over the skin whitening lotion and dieting pills plastered all over the billboards. We avoid the swelling sense of shame we feel whenever we’re told, “Ang itim mo na!” or “Ang taba-taba mo na!”
Even as the years rolled on, the image of Barbie and all it represents is still both what we strive for, and ultimately, what we try to break away from. We sought fair and ivory skin, and a body that enlarges and shrinks to our control, filling the hole of years of failed feminist movements.
“She attempts to make herself in the image of womanhood presented by billboards, newspapers, magazines, and television,” Susan Orbach posits in her book, Fat is a Feminist Issue. Barbie mirrors this idea of who we want to be, marked by Western influence, regardless of the impossible circumstances that put us at odds with this fantasy. The crisis comes at the wake of excess. Our addiction to the fitness regime, our desire to become whiter—Barbie, at this point, ceases to be merely a toy that delineates between genders, but instead represents Western culture’s hold of the psychology and self-concept of a people.
Beyond the valley of the doll
“These notions get ingrained in the minds of little girls and boys, they grow up thinking this is what beauty is. The toys, stories that are told to them, the shows that they watch,” Parr emphasizes. However, Barbie’s new body types hint at a change.
Our own childhoods sketch the outline of the potential picture we will spend the rest of our lives trying to fill in and perfect. We fit the pieces of the puzzle growing up by trying on new lipstick, dying our hair a shade lighter, or by baring our shoulders for the first time, but it’s not a form of giving in to society and its arbitrary notions of beauty—it’s a form of self-discovery. We understand that beauty is not drastic, but slow, cumulative. The way the sky changes its color delicately, gradually as it rises and sets.
Maybe the way to look at those who try to change the color of their skin or chisel their body into certain shapes is that they are not delusional, but exhaustively disillusioned. The magic of their pale lips or their brown glittering skin has been lost in the fray of childhood and peer pressure. And yet, today’s changing notion of beauty, as seen by one Barbie doll’s curvy hips, or another’s petite figure, allows us relief—a momentary breath out of water and a path to take to discover ourselves again.
Roselle Pineda writes in The Unbearable Heaviness of My Being, “Maybe the answer is not lightness but weight itself—the weight that keeps us from floating into outer space, the weight that keeps us from being directionless and not in control of our own bodies. Our bodies are not the antithesis of our weight. Weight is the companion of our bodies. Without weight, there is no body. Without weight, the body is just another formless energy.” Lightness, in this sense, of both skin and body is not the antithesis of worth, nor can it in a way condense the many dazzling intricacies that make up a man or a woman, even if it were in the form a plastic doll in a glass case.