There's been a great deal of controversy over Barbie of late, as though Mattel's flagship product wasn't already pretty awful -- the vast majority of dolls in the line are white, with blonde hair, ludicrously long legs, tiny waists, and perky boobs. Pretty much anatomically impossible, in other words. But the company really fell in it when "Engineer Barbie" needed boys to come fix her computer problems recently. (Don't worry, the Internet fixed it.)
Small doll companies have consistently battled for market share with Barbie and lost out because of the brand recognition and market dominance Mattel has achieved. Lately, upstart company Goldieblox had a go at it with a rather lackluster entry into the competition: Yet another white, flaxen-haired, slender girl adhering to beauty norms.
Breaking news this week revolves around the Lammily doll, which started as a Photoshop, turned into a Kickstarter, and just became a reality, right in time for the holiday shopping season. Creator Nickolay Lamm began by exploring what a fashion doll for girls based on more average proportions would look like. He collected data from the CDC and developed a mockup that became an Internet sensation -- so he took it to Kickstarter to see if anyone would bite. They did, to the tune of some $500,000, and the doll is a reality.
It's not a perfect one. The doll reads pretty strongly white, although it's a little difficult to tell just from images; she may just be light-skinned, or suffering from the eternal slight browning problem of plastic. It would have been much more revolutionary to see a dark-skinned doll on the first run, as a defiance to traditional dolls; I'm pretty sure adding a little melanin shouldn't cost extra. At least she has dark hair and hazel eyes, a departure from the Aryan Super-Race Effigies who seem to dominate toystore shelves. Baby steps, in this, are still steps.
But here's why the doll is exciting: It comes with more than the typical accessory packs. Sure, you can get official tattoos for your Barbies, but for Lammily, you can apply stretch marks, pimples, freckles, cellulite and more. The optional sticker kit includes a variety of reusable stickers you can put anywhere on the doll's body, which is pretty darn cool.
A dude developed a doll, in solidarity with women. He developed a doll with proportions that will seem familiar to many young women and girls, with features they can add on. And he's getting a ton of media coverage -- enough, perhaps, to push this particular concept into popularity.
One reason he did it is because he's struggled with his own body image issues:
Back in high school, I thought I was short for a guy at 5-5, so I starved myself and exercised to exhaustion to have a set of six-pack abs. I looked and felt terrible. I thought a lot about how everyone’s body is different, but we measure ourselves with one standard.
He also saw the same issues among the women around him, one reason why he explored the physiology of Barbie next to that of women with more average, statistically familiar proportions.
For girls picking up these dolls, and their parents, there's something else, though: The doll's sticker set opens up the natural idea of hacking dolls even further. Sure, you can buy the base set and add surgical scars and more, but I like the idea of printing out your own reusable stickers (or drawing them on removable tape or blank repositionable stickers). Lammily sort of invites modification, as she pushes for embracing people across a spectrum of appearances and identities.
Right now she doesn't have accessories like a wheelchair, for example, or leg braces, or prosthetic limbs, or a cane. But that doesn't mean she'll stay that way -- hopefully as they expand the line of accessories, some interesting options will open up for disabled children and teens who want to see themselves in the doll. Meanwhile, why not customize her with a colostomy bag, or insulin pump, or feeding tube? What about a version with a shaved head and a scarf? Lammily seems to encourage this in a way that Barbie really doesn't.
When I see people customizing Barbies, it's usually with beautiful and meticulous hand-sewn fashion and hairstyles, which is totally amazing, but doesn't really reveal the full spectrum of humanity. Instead, it kind of underscores the harmful norms Barbie is pushing at, and promoting. Lammily is pushing right back, in a way that I suspect many parents and kids will find exciting; parents struggling with the question of whether to give their children dolls when they ask for them finally have an option.
There is one note of caution I have for Lammily-lovers, though: I'm not so in love with the headlines trumpeting that she's "normal" and "healthy." You can be a variety of sizes and be normal. You can be a variety of body shapes and be healthy. For someone with a congenital spinal cord impairment, using a wheelchair for mobility is normal, after all. For many fat people, their bodies are both normal and healthy, active on the same level that Lammily is designed to be.
For girls of color, their skin tones are normal, and healthy, to boot; and right now, there's no Asian Lammily. There's no dark-skinned Lammily. No Native Lammily. And yes, diversity matters. While I understand that it may not have been feasible to roll out, say, eight body types and skin tones at the start of the project, I do strongly wish that they had considered adding several skin tones to the opening edition. Because I think that there are a lot of little Black, Latina, Indigenous, Asian, and other girls of color that would have loved to open a package this December and see a doll that looked like them.
I get what they are trying to do and I admire the sentiment; I love the idea that "reality is cool," but reality is a lot bigger than one doll of one specific appearance and body type. So let's hope that Lammily catches on, that she gets more popular, that she keeps selling, so that the product line can start expanding.