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Somehow, Barbie Has Survived a Culture Where Obesity Is Child's Play

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By Jennifer Huget
Tuesday, March 10, 2009

An iconic image of femininity or a distortion of womanhood, the hourglass figure we associate with Barbie has for half a century shaped debate about girls' attitudes about their bodies. Ever wonder what it would look like a few pounds heavier?

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Wonder no more. An ad agency working on behalf of a Texas-based organization called Active Life has done the dirty work for us, portraying a bloated Barbielike figure reclined on her bed, her laptop at the ready, food and drink containers strewn about. It's a cautionary image, part of an ad campaign (which also fattens up toys that evoke Superman and the PlayMobil pirates) with the catch line "Don't Let Obesity Happen to Your Kids."

The ads have run in Austin area publications, says Active Life founder Baker Harrell, and have had wider play on the Internet. Harrell stresses that his group wasn't picking on Barbie herself, but rather used these images of popular kids' toys to draw attention to the "toxic culture and toxic environment" in which we're raising our kids -- circumstances that he says have contributed to the nation's obesity epidemic.

Some will probably see the fat toy ads as due payback for half a century of having Barbie, with her other-worldly body, rubbed in our face as an ideal of feminine beauty. Others will chuckle and move on.

While gobs of copy have been written about Barbie's pernicious influence on women's body images and sense of self-worth, an entirely unscientific poll in the Checkup blog last week put Barbie and her vaunted influence in their place. Of nearly 700 readers responding to the question "Who has most influenced your feelings about your body?" 33 percent cited "images in the media" and 32 percent cited "my mother's comments about my weight and figure." While 14 percent said their mother's comments about her own body exerted the most influence, nary a soul pointed to Barbie.

Which suggests to me that many of us have understood from an early age that Barbie isn't real. She's made of plastic and rubber. Heck, you can (and I often did) pull her legs off. That helped me keep her mind-boggling proportions in perspective.

A Barbie doll will never grow fat. (Her bathroom scale, famously, doesn't count higher than 110 pounds.) But what if she could? Would Barbie's diet and lifestyle keep her lean and fit, or would she, if she really lived the way her life is portrayed, become a Barbie blimp?

Let's have a look.

Barbie's Dream House can be equipped with various sets of furniture and accompanying accessories. There's a grill that comes with a rotisserie chicken. Barbie's refrigerator comes stocked with a whole watermelon and some ears of corn; the package it comes in has Barbie touting her special "pink eggs." A dinette set comes with something that looks like a whole pie and a bowl of salad. The "dream sofa" comes with tall glasses sporting straws plus a bowl of popcorn and a pizza in a takeout box. There's also a plateful of something green with strips of something white atop, which hints at being a healthful dish.

So far, so good: Barbie's got a pretty okay diet, especially for a single gal on the go.

But Barbie has a flat-screen TV in her bedroom and another in, of all places, her bathroom. We know that watching too much TV steals time from healthful physical activities and may contribute to our downing too many fat- and sugar-laden snacks, so keeping a flat-screen in the bedroom is ill-advised enough. As for the bathroom, well, I just don't know what to say.

But perhaps Barbie's active lifestyle is enough to compensate for all that TV time. After all, in addition to her career as a "baby doctor," Barbie has gigs as a "soccer star" and a "swim instructor." She may be exhausted, but she's certainly fit.

Barbie's personal life is one thing; the activities she promotes for her young fans are another matter. You can buy human-size Barbie in-line skates, skateboards, golf clubs and even a Barbie bowling ball. But among the many DVDs and videos bearing her name and likeness, none are fitness-related; a 1994 "Dance Workout With Barbie" VHS tape (starring Jennifer Love Hewitt!) is out of print; nor is a dance-pad video game any longer available.

And check out Barbie's EverythingGirl Web site, where the interactive options include a hot hairstyle game, a dog show game and a bike game (no actual pedaling required, no sweat broken).

Perhaps you'd like a snack while you, say, explore Barbie's magical garden. How about a Barbie Sparkleberry Pop Tart with Wild Berry filling (200 calories)? Or a serving of Barbie ice-cream cake from Cold Stone Creamery (about 300 calories, half of them from fat)? Or a Barbie fruit-flavored snack (80 calories per pack, with 100 percent of your daily value of Vitamin C)?

Last night, Barbie celebrated her 50th birthday with a big bash at a life-size Barbie house in Malibu, Calif. The menu, meant to evoke 1959, the year Barbie was "born," included roasted prime rib with horseradish whipped cream, twice-baked potatoes with sour cream, chive and cheddar cheese, crispy onion rings, plus hearty hors d'oeuvres, s'mores, cupcakes (with pink icing in various shades), fresh pink and white marshmallows, chocolate truffles and four signature alcoholic drinks, three of them fruity. Miss Barbie is clearly not watching her weight!

In fact, printed on the back of the dessert bar was this quotation, which I'm told by her PR person is directly attributable to Barbie herself: "Eat healthy -- but always have a decadent dessert."

So that's her secret.

Check out today's Checkup blog post, in which Jennifer reflects on keeping yourself healthy for the sake of your family. Subscribe to the weekly Lean & Fit nutrition newsletter by going to http://www.washingtonpost.com and searching for "newsletters." Go to the Wednesday Food section to find Nourish, a feature with a recipe for healthful eating every week. And e-mail your thoughts to Jennifer at checkup@washpost.com.


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