March 09, 2021


Today in 1959 Ruth Handler debuted the doll that was named after her teenage daughter Barbara.

n. a woman who is likened to a Barbie doll, esp. in being pretty or shapely but passive, characterless, or unintelligent
Oxford English Dictionary

The original “Barbie” was an eighteen-year-old girl whose mother was convinced she would like to play with a German fashion doll for men, while the original “Ken” was her hapless brother who had the misfortune of being the only boy around when names were bandied about for Barbie’s on-again, off-again, sexually unthreatening “play pal.”

It all started with a sexy German toy sold in European bars and tobacco shops in the 1950s. Ruth and Elliot Handler bought several while traveling in Switzerland in 1956 and thought their teenage daughter Barbara would prefer them to the standard doll fare of the day. Under Ruth’s guidance, Elliott’s burgeoning toy company, Mattel, tweaked the design, named the plastic figure after their daughter, and introduced “Barbie” at the New York City toy fair in 1959. Two years later, in a marketing move that might just be as creepy as it sounds, the Handlers named Barbie’s boyfriend “Ken” after their real-life son Kenneth.

Ruth wanted her daughter and all young girls to have a doll that looked like a woman, and full breasts were always an essential part of the design. The original prototypes from the Japanese manufacturer were apparently so realistic that Mattel executives had to file down the nipples to make them less provocative, but the original proportions were still outrageous. The first Barbies on the market (a staggering 350,000 were sold in the first year alone), if extrapolated to human scale, would have had the unstable female measurements of a 39-inch chest, 18-inch waist, and 33-inch hips.

Social critics plagued Barbie from the beginning, and the new dolls sauntering on the scene often did not help matters. Slumber Party Barbie, issued in 1965, came with a bathroom scale indicating she weighed 110 pounds (approximately 35 pounds underweight given her projected 5-feet-9-inch height), and her packaging included a book on weight loss that advised girls not to eat. Researchers in Finland later theorized that a life-size Barbie would lack the body fat necessary to menstruate. Subsequent releases of Barbie warned girls that “Math class is tough!” and rolled around in wheelchairs that could not fit in the elevator of her own Dreamhouse.

And yet still they sold and continue to sell—two every second (if Mattel executives are to be believed)—in more than 150 countries. The word “Barbie” took on its derogatory bimbo meaning in the early 1970s, and the artistic backlash against the doll over the last thirty-five years has included Barbie bits in blenders, S&M outfits (see sadism and masochism), and countless parodies in print, television, and plastic. Daughter Barbara Handler seemed always to resent the association to her plastic namesake. “Much of me is very proud that my folks invented the doll. I just wish I wasn’t attached to it.”

The epilogue of Barbie’s inventor is a remarkable story in and of itself, as the shape of women’s breasts once again provided the inspiration for her last commercial venture. Ruth Handler was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1970. Following a mastectomy, she ended up manufacturing a new, more-realistic prosthetic for women—the “Nearly Me.” Doctor Barbie—who debuted in 1987 with the tagline “She changes from doctor to glorious date!”—could not have been prouder.