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Barbie as a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Model? Our Girls (and Boys) Deserve Better

Sports Illustrated Barbie Cover

By Eileen Zurbriggen, PhD (Professor of Psychology, University of California, Santa Cruz) and Tomi-Ann Roberts, PhD (Professor of Psychology, Colorado College)

The latest Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is out, with a print edition of 200+ pages, a mobile app, bonus online photographs and videos, and even a hardcover book to celebrate the 50th anniversary.  But something else is new this year: a partnership with Mattel (creator of the Barbie doll) and a tall tale about how empowering the swimsuit issue has been for women.

Barbie and the SI swimsuit issue: A perfect match?

The choice to feature Barbie in the swimsuit issue is telling.  She’s everything that a model is supposed to be, only more so.  Her physical features are even more unattainable than those of the human supermodels.  To match Barbie’s measurements, the average adult woman in the United States would require a chest 5 inches larger, a waist 6 inches smaller and a neck 3 inches longer.  Oh, and she’d also have to be 2 feet taller!  Even an extreme plastic surgery makeover couldn’t reshape a woman this much.

Barbie and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue complement each other, in that Barbie teaches girls at a very young age that beauty, fashion, and thinness amount to what’s important for women.  SI teaches adolescent (and younger) boys the same thing: that it is ok to ogle a woman and that sexual titillation and gratification is actually what women are for.  This pairing is especially insidious because the damaging messages for girls and boys match up so seamlessly.

Barbie and SI are a match in yet another terrible way. Let’s not forget, Barbie’s not a real woman, she’s a child’s toy.  A toy that girls as young as 3 or 4 years old play with is being featured in an adult men’s magazine issue intended for their sexual titillation. Can’t SI and Mattel see the creepiness in such juxtaposition? When girls’ playthings are associated with adult sexuality, we begin to come dangerously close to thinking of young girls themselves as appropriate sex targets.

Objectification does not equal empowerment

One of the most frustrating aspects of this 50th anniversary issue is the way Sports Illustrated employs the narrative that objectification is empowerment.  Look at the accomplishments of our former cover girls!  Modeling is the path to success!  Yet when we look more closely, we can see the flaws in that narrative.

As a doll, Barbie is a literal object, whose purpose is to bring enjoyment to the girls who play with her.  As an object, she doesn’t get to change or grow or pursue her own goals.  In the words of swimsuit edition photographer Walter Iooss Jr., “when Barbie strikes a pose, she holds it forever.  Matter of fact, she’s still holding the pose.  She hasn’t changed since yesterday.”  Sure, this is partly just tongue-in-cheek joking.  Yet the anniversary edition’s “Legends” layout makes it clear that SI still views its alumnae models as sex objects. Their accomplishments (e.g., CEO) are listed in tiny print, but visually the women are still portrayed as sexualized models, with revealing clothing and provocative poses.  Despite their other accomplishments, what’s really important about the women is that they’re still sexy.  What’s really important about them is the sexual enjoyment they bring to male viewers.

And what about the impact on women and girls in general?  Far from being empowering, the objectification of women harms them in multiple ways, from increases in depression and eating disorders, to being perceived as less competent, to being less successful at solving math problems.  Young girls are impacted too.  Newly published research shows that girls aged 4-7 who played with a Barbie doll (as compared to a Mrs. Potato Head doll) saw fewer careers as possible for themselves in the future.  The fact that individual supermodels have used their SI swimsuit appearances as launching pads for lucrative careers in entertainment, fashion, or television might be nice for them, but to frame that as empowerment for all women is insulting.

One of our male college students summed up our outrage nicely.  Upon seeing Barbie in SI, he exclaimed, “But Barbie’s not a real person!”  This placement of Barbie in SI’s swimsuit edition should be  an “aha” moment for us all: When real women are sexualized in the extreme ways shown in SI, they’re not allowed to be real people either.

What Can You Do?

  1. Demand that Sports Illustrated balance their objectifying portrayals of women in the special swimsuit issue by featuring far more female athletes the rest of the year.  Currently, there is virtually no coverage of women’s sports or female athletes in SI. And the few times that women are featured, they are posed in evening gowns or swimsuits, rather than actively engaged in their sports.  Research shows how important it is for girls (and boys) to see photographs of female athletes performing in their sport rather than posed in sexualized layouts.  If SI is as committed to women’s empowerment as it claims, it can and should take the lead in serious journalism about female athletes.

  2. Call on Mattel to develop new dolls with realistic body proportions and a focus on action rather than appearance.  Rather than trying to match the hypersexualization of Bratz dolls, Mattel could set a new standard for fun, engaging dolls that don’t destroy a girl’s body image or limit her imagined career choices.

  3. Urge your Members of Congress to reintroduce the Healthy Media for Youth Act, which will support youth empowerment and media literacy programs.

  4. Visit APA’s resource page on sexualization of girls. Not only can you read the landmark report on this topic, but you can download tools for parents and girls on how to push back on sexualization messages in the media. There’s also a media literacy tool designed for both boys and girls to learn to resist the message that how girls look is what matters and to advocate for themselves.

  5. Watch and share APA’s powerful “Girls Talk” video, in which 6 middle school girls effectively critique the sexualization messages they see around them and discuss how they feel about the way girls today are portrayed.

  1. Be physically active and encourage the girls in your life to do the same.  Walk, ride a bike, play soccer, ski, surf, dance, or do whatever makes you smile.  We guarantee, it’ll be more fun than “striking a pose” like a plastic Barbie or a sexualized supermodel.

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