The Stepford Wives & Barbie, Studies in Ideal Womenhood

Reposting an essay that I wrote in 2015

Diversity in the Barbie Universe
“Diversity” in the Barbie Universe


Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the 1970’s classic thriller movie The Stepford Wives. Based on the novel with the same name by Ira Levin, the story is simple and nightmarish, a chilling distortion of the American Dream. The men of Stepford have decided that the only way they can attain an idealized Ozzie-and-Harriet-like suburban life is to replace their wives with “perfect women” in the form of mechanical dolls. These automatons are obedient, non-confrontational, devoid of opinion – and, of course, both great in bed and superb cooks. They’re also svelte, always impeccably groomed and white.

I keep flashing on The Stepford Wives not because I particularly liked the movie, but because it has become a cultural icon of the social pressure to conform. It’s a distorted view of womanhood that feels particularly relevant in light of the groundswell reaction to my recent essays Is Obesity the New Obscenity? and The Monster in the Mirror. With the many hundreds of comments, hits, links and likes those essays have received, I’ve realized that I’m not alone in my discomfort with the way people who don’t fit a distorted physical “ideal” are treated. In fact, “we” far outnumber “them.”

So why do these twisted yardsticks of “acceptability” persist when so many cry out against them? What is it that condemns society to be so foolish as to ostracize a high percentage of our population, not based on what each individual has to offer, but on her or his appearance?

An article in The Atlantic How Obesity Became a Disease offers a theory. (The article is an excerpt from Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Culture Drive Our Obsession With Weight–and What We Can Do About It by Harriet Brown.) Essentially, Brown says, “Weight loss is big business” for the medical profession. She puts a lot of the blame on The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company which promulgated the now ubiquitous weight/height tables that gave doctors and others a way to measure how “normal” each person is.

I remember the annual elementary school weigh-in which used those tables. All of us lined up on the gym’s basketball sideline, nervous and uncertain. One by one, we were called forward, stepped on the scale and waited the nurse’s decree. When the she announced the weight of the current victim, all the kids commented, sneered or teased about how fat or skinny their classmate was. I dreaded my turn, because I was inevitably the second heaviest person in the class. The first was a girl who was so round that she outweighed even the biggest of the boys. I naturally identified with her, and became convinced that I was quite overweight.

Many years later I finally admitted to my mother how ashamed I had been to be the second fattest kid in my class. “You were never fat, Sally,” she told me. “You were tall.” And she was right. When I look back, I remember being much taller than most kids my age. Of course, I would have weighed more.

What bothers me now is how relieved I was when my mother helped me see the truth of those weigh-ins. When she told me that I wasn’t fat, my immediate reaction was “thank goodness!” Why should it matter so much to me? Why do I care whether I fit into size 10 jeans or size 16? Is a stylish haircut or nice complexion or “good figure” really the measure of me as a woman? Or is it my mind, my heart and the personality behind my smile that defines me?

Still, what woman doesn’t want to be considered pretty? I know I enjoy it when I’ve dressed for a meeting or a party, and Daniel looks at me with that particular sparkle of his that makes me feel desirable. Does that mean I secretly want to be a Stepford wife? Absolutely not. Nor do I see anything wrong in wanting to be appealing for Daniel. (Though he thinks me attractive no matter how I look, how much I weigh or what I wear. That’s love) Yet, I can’t help but wonder how much those childhood weigh-ins and the airbrushed celebrities on the magazine racks have influenced me. Deep down, where logic can’t reach.

Those numbers called out by the nurse and appended to my school record became a sore point that needed my mother’s assurance decades later. Even though by then I had authored several books, written hundreds of articles and essays, and had became known for my fine art photography. In other words, I was what most people would call a “successful woman.” My mother told me I wasn’t fat, and it mattered. It made me feel better about myself, as a woman, and it shouldn’t have.

I think back on the child I was whenever I consider the woman I have become. In many ways, I was quite lucky, not only because I never knew want and was loved, but because my role models were strong women in my family and among their friends. So I always knew that I had career options beyond the kitchen, maternity ward or bedroom. At playtime, I didn’t really like Barbie dolls. I preferred more the realistic Ginny when I played with dolls. (Ginny had a natural child’s round body and — after I got my hands on her — typical childlike messy hair.) My mother encouraged me to enjoy arithmetic problems and word play as special games that we shared. And my parents bought me a toy microscope and chemistry set as well as a dollhouse.

In other words, I had the kind of nurturing that conventional wisdom says daughters should have. Yet, I didn’t avoid the trap we’ve all fallen into. Looking at it from another direction: Do the mothers who buy Barbie dolls secretly (or not so secretly) dream of being a Barbie, or having a daughter achieve what they never could: that absurd, top-heavy, flesh-less figure? That doesn’t sound logical to me. Perhaps, parents are simply bowing to social pressures and brand-name advertising. Such is the power of advertising and popular culture, that even our desires are defined by what is drummed into us.

A couple of decades ago, Daniel and I were on assignment in the still powerful Soviet Union. One evening, we sat with a new friend, a professor from New Orleans. He said he was surprised at how the locals he had met might rant against the propaganda they were fed, but that they still espoused the same concepts and distorted “facts” that the powers-that-be fed them. Daniel responded, “We’re the same. We might laugh at slick TV commercials and magazine advertisements. Nevertheless we tend to buy the brand names they hammer at us.”
In addition, we cannot ignore the sense of safety and security we get from “fitting in.” Being accepted and perceived as attractive is an endorphin high, as well as a validation. If we looked like some idolized celebrity, maybe we would be liked and admired, too.

Our culture is now much more enlightened about weight and body self-image than we were when I was in elementary school. Look at all the Facebook and Twitter posts calling out the absurdity of over-Photoshopped advertisements and magazine covers that turn beautiful women into Auschwitz-like skeletons. I haven’t browsed the self-help section of bookstores recently (it’s not a subject I read very often). But I wouldn’t be surprised if the scores of omnipresent weight-loss books might be almost offset by the number of volumes on self-acceptance.

However, like those memories of my childhood shame that won’t be reined in by rational thinking, what values we give lip service often don’t mesh with our reflexive judgmental attitudes. We still care deeply about our own bodies and measure others by the same artificial harsh standards. It’s instinctive, ingrained into our psyches by Hollywood and Madison Avenue propaganda.

But there is hope — at least for the girls growing up today. Skin-and-bones models have been banned from fashion runways in France, Israel and elsewhere (though fashion shows continue to focus on thin women). I’d prefer seeing a realistic diversity of body types among models. Still, it’s a beginning. Who knows, maybe the entertainment industry will follow suit. Wouldn’t it be great if, in the future, obsession with numbers on a scale and dress size became known as old-women neuroses?

The ugly sense of “beauty” that popular culture, the media and actuarial tables have created devalues all of us. The horror of Stepford is that not only are the women turned into mechanical Barbie dolls, but the men are little more than Ken dolls in three piece suits, with country-club manners and hive mentality. In other words, the men are emasculated in direct proportion to the dehumanizing of the women. Similarly, when we absorb subliminal (and blatant) messages about what is physically “acceptable” or “normal,” we become fenced in, homogenized and condemned to the boredom of sameness. It impoverishes us as individuals and as a society, offering no challenge, no potential for growth.

I’ll never fit into the constricting girdle all those preconceptions and prejudices try to force on us. While I have to admit, at various times in my life I’ve tried (and I have the yo-yo-sized wardrobe to prove it), neither my body nor my mind and spirit would be contained. I overflowed the constrictions, bulged and finally broke out of the mold. Of course, it’s always a battle. Social and media pressures are omnipresent, and the professional world still favors women who look “the part.” But it’s up to us to define what part we want to play, how we wish to be seen, who we want to present to the world. I choose to show the world the woman within this body, whatever shape that body happens to be. More importantly, I will continue to seek out and surround myself not with others like me, but with individuals who challenge me and offer new ways of seeing and looking.

Barbie dolls may have taught generations of women to be dissatisfied with their physical selves. And Stepford Wives may have tried to convince us that only pert, pretty, mindless bodies can be attractive. However none of us really want to have only plastic and gears under our dreamed-for flawless skin. So, perhaps we can learn a richer lesson from those false idols of commercialized beauty. Having cellulite, wrinkles and bulges are the mark of a real woman. One who may laugh too loudly, expresses her opinion freely, and has no fear of standing out from the crowd.

May we all live up to that ideal of womanhood.

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