Before I begin, let me clarify that this is not a defense of Barbie. Just like pretty much everyone else in the known universe, I think Barbies are silly and poor representations of women. That said, Occupy Barbie is a little disorganized. People are throwing anything and everything at the walls of Barbie’s castle in an effort to tear it down. Collateral damage is ensuing, people are getting hurt. Recently, I was a silent witness to an argument about the recently designed “realistic barbie.” Touted as progress (and it may very well be, I don’t know), the doll is meant to redefine our current unrealistic standards of beauty by representing women in their average, 19-year-old form, complete with customizable acne, cellulite and stretch marks. Average is beautiful, the slogan goes. The conversation was what you’d expect. One side claimed the doll is unnecessary as dolls need not define beauty. The opposition claimed the doll is necessary because modern standards of beauty are unrealistic. Another contributor pointed out an apparent double standard; while people are constantly up in arms about unrealistic representations of women as impossibly thin, smooth-skinned, lily white blondes, no one seems to care about unrealistic representations of men as impossibly tall, sinewy, muscle-bound Goliaths. But EVERYONE agreed that unrealistic representations of the human form are not good. We’re already running into problems. There is something almost comically contradictory about the passionate push for realistic depictions of women’s bodies in television, ads, and dolls, and the simultaneous demand for the depiction of women in predominantly male professions. For instance, Gizmodo published an article remonstrating Barbie for producing a children’s book that, though entitled “Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer,” tells the story of Barbie screwing up her computer and relying on Steven and Brian (men!) for help in the matter. Realistically, only 13.6% of undergraduate computer science degrees are awarded to women. If we’re bowing to the god of realism, either Barbie shouldn’t be a computer engineer, or, at the very least, it makes sense that her colleagues are men, as men represent six out of every seven people in the field. You may respond that women have been artificially barred from the world of computer science and that, were this not the case, they would represent a greater share of the field—and you may be right about that. But if the argument against barbie’s physical appearance is lack of realism, I don’t know why the same argument wouldn’t apply to her occupations.
What I’m saying is that, in the war against Barbie, the Supreme Law of Realism applies only to physical appearance. We are horrified when magazines Photoshop women’s bodies to conform to the modern standard of beauty, but we have no problem Photoshopping women’s lives to conform to the modern standard of success. But I digress.
All of this is interesting and worth discussion, but the part of the conversation that I found most telling and most frustrating was a particular comment about the alleged worthlessness of physical beauty. Comparing the representation of men in “He-Man” to the representation of women in “Barbie,” a participant noted that while neither is realistic or necessarily healthy, He-Man is an example of a male power fantasy, while Barbie is merely beautiful. He-man is muscular because he is powerful. Barbie is pretty, but lacks any character development or heroism. I can’t speak for him, but I think the point is that although the male toy is indeed unrealistic, his exaggerated characteristic (physical strength) is worthwhile and valuable, while the unrealistic characteristic portrayed in Barbie (physical beauty) is useless and superficial.
This is a commonly accepted notion—that physical beauty is worthless, while physical strength has true utility. Physical strength lifts, it moves, it opens doors, it launches ships, they say—as though physical beauty has never lifted or moved anything, has never opened doors or launched ships.
Is there no value in beauty? Does it not possess power? Is it less powerful than physical strength? I submit that it is not. What it means to be physically beautiful, what defines it, how it changes and what that means are questions for another day, but I know that beauty exists and I know that it is powerful.
Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean to say that physical beauty is of the utmost importance to one’s value or happiness, only that it possesses a strength and ability that ought not be underestimated. Inextricably linked to and enhanced by the more important and more powerful beauty of the soul, physical beauty inspires, moves, changes those that encounter it. It is a force less direct and more difficult to measure than physical strength, but a force nonetheless, and one that has been acting on the world since the dawn of time.
This is not a revolutionary statement. We acknowledge the power of beauty in art or nature. It is a well established fact that the beauty of a sunset, a sunrise, an ocean, a painting, a song can inspire and change people, can have an indescribable and immeasurable effect on the world. Only in its human manifestation do we deny its power and value. People seem to take for granted that we are a society that overvalues physical beauty. Not so, I say. We are still enamored by the beautiful, it still works on us, it still moves us, it still inspires us, and yet we refuse to identify it as the formidable force that it is. We are a society in denial. Physical strength, on the other hand, we value above nearly everything else. We value the ability to move an obstacle with one’s arms, and yet dismiss the ability to move an obstacle with one’s presence. Why? If to launch a ship with one’s arms is evidence of a prodigious strength, surely to launch a thousand with one’s face is as well.
^Greek mythology gets it.^
I am not suggesting that people obsess over physical beauty the way some obsess over physical strength, or vice versa. There are far more powerful and important things on which to focus. I just don’t see a substantial difference between the two. Both are limited, both are mortal, but both are powerful. Both result from God-given design and yet can be further cultivated and maintained through one’s lifestyle. Both can be used to build up or tear down, for good or for evil, to help or to hurt. Both deteriorate with age. And while humans tend to make of them both false religions, neither are sufficient for lasting happiness. Just as I would not deny to a very strong man that his strength is good and powerful, I would not deny to a very beautiful woman that her beauty is good and powerful. Let’s not throw beauty out with Barbie. Criticize Barbie for being a bad example, admonish her for her unhealthy figure, but don’t devalue beauty in the process.