After almost 57 years of body-image debate, Barbie finally got an update. Mattel, Barbie’s producer, has announced that they will start issuing dolls that reflect more realistic body types. At almost the same time, however, another Barbie-related sensation has been sweeping the web: Hijarbie. Nigerian medical scientist and fashion enthusiast Haneefa Adam decided to start dressing Barbie in modest fashion because she “had not seen a Barbie dressed in Hijab before.” Her comment speaks to both the unpopularity of the Fulla and Razanne dolls in North America as well as the desire for even more Barbie diversity.
Hijarbie, like almost everything related to Islam or Muslims, has come under islamophobic fire. Comments range from simply calling the covered dolls “oppressed” to asking whether Ken comes with a suicide vest. Just like with Eliana Lorena’s Burqa Barbie in 2009, people seem to assume Adam is making a political statement with her dolls. Adam has chosen neither to engage with these comments nor to let them deter her; I will follow suit. While I haven’t found any written criticisms of Hijarbie from a Muslim point of view, informal conversations with friends have yielded two trends: people ask about Ken, and they argue that the headscarf isn’t necessarily an accurate representation of Muslim women.
I tend to ignore the Ken comments. In my opinion, Hijarbie is a customer-created phenomenon. It is not the responsibility of Adam to add “shari’a-compliant” Ken dolls to her line. As for those who balk at the idea of a covered Barbie- I can’t deny the fact that a hijab neither makes nor breaks a Muslim woman, but I also can’t deny the fact that there is a significant portion of Muslim women who do cover their heads, and there seems to be little popular culture representation of these women in the West. There is of course an underrepresentation of people of color in the media in general, but in my experience, women and girls who wear hijab are particularly underrepresented in mainstream media in the US and France. I can’t speak definitively for other American and European countries, but I imagine the same trends exist.
Mattel’s new plans for Barbie include a variety of body shapes, styles, and hair colors, but it is unclear whether there will be a hijab wearing version of the doll. My guess is no, Barbie will wear the same things she has always worn (which in and of itself is a body positive message. By not suggesting a need to cover up thicker body types, Mattel is suggesting all bodies are beautiful. Of course, Mattel changed Barbie to save itself, not to represent its customer base).
Interestingly, some of the same people arguing that hijab isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to the lack of Muslim Barbie representation are the ones calling for shari’a-compliant Ken doll, as if to suggest that even though all Muslim women don’t look alike, Muslim men do. A look at the history of influential Muslim men in America quickly debunks that idea. While I would love to see thobes and hijabs as part of the regular Barbie collection (as opposed to the special edition, “ethnic” dolls), the absence of them is not what prevented me from buying the dolls for my future children. It was the uniform fair-skin (even among the black dolls), straight hair, and tiny waist. Now that Barbie looks more human, I’m more interested in her.
The new versions of the doll are not some miracle cure for body image issues. The new skin tones won’t for example address issues like acne and vitiligo, which can be hugely damaging to the self-esteem of young and old alike. Still, careful parenting help children understand that while some people look like Barbie, not everyone will, and that it’s okay for them to be who they are, regardless of whether they wear hijab, have acne, or are shorter than their classmates. At the end of the day, as I’m sure I’ve argued before, headscarves and thobes are pieces of fabric that can be removed, but faith isn’t so easily lifted. Another important thing to remember: Barbie is just a piece of molded plastic bundled in cloth. She carries only as much power as we give her.
No matter how many Barbies there are, a girl with achondroplasia, say, who will grow up to be four feet tall and considered “fat” because of her proportions will not feel better if there is a “little person barbie”. She will feel better when compulsory beauty, height, and thinness stop being a mandate for her gender. Her brother, with the same condition, will suffer as well under the auspices of the male height mandate.
Screw “beauty”. Including more races and body types (i.e. “plus size” women who are six foot tall and, gasp, 160 pounds) doesn’t obliterate an oppressive regime. And, hello, even the tallest skinniest Aryan gets old and is then deemed useless. No one is immune.