Outfit Post: The "pink culture" and a pretty floral dress

Think back to when you were a little girl. What did you want to be when you grew up? Did you dream about being a teacher, leading a group of eager students through creative writing exercises and complex math equations? Or were your fantasies about designing clothes for a living, showing your collections at Bryant Park? Maybe your dreams were more adventurous...defending our country as an Air Force pilot, or carrying terrified homeowners out of a burning building.

When I was eight or nine, the only thing I wanted to be when I grew up was Barbie. I spent hours in my room arranging and dressing my Barbie dolls, styling their long, luxurious swoops of glossy blonde hair, and reenacting dramas comparable to those of your trashiest soap opera. Despite the fact that they lived, hillbilly sorority-style, in a Barbie Motor Home (I swear this was real) my Barbies lived a very glamorous existence, lounging around in sequined gowns, taking jaunts to the "city" (the nether regions of my closet) and going for swims in their above ground pool. They were best friends who shared clothes and always looked impeccable, their long spidery legs encased in teeny tiny miniskirts and slim pants with Velcro closures at the waist. I diligently saved my allowance to buy them spindly high heels, and pink party dresses, and tiny terry cloth bikinis, which they wore to entertain and sunbathe and throw lavish parties where they served drinks in teeny tiny cups on teeny tiny trays.

In contrast to the high-flying life my Barbies lived, I was a chubby, painfully shy child, the kind of girl who sat in the back of class and chewed on her hair. I was tormented by the other girls in my grade for not having the "right" clothes, and felt like an outcast most of the time. I truly believed that if I was Barbie, my life would be completely different. Men would fall at my feet; I'd be tall and skinny and able to wear whatever I wanted; I'd have more friends than I could count. Indeed, if I were like Barbie, I'd be gorgeous and popular just like she was.

This week I came across a book which explores issues of what the "pink culture" (Barbies, princesses, cosmetics and the like) is doing to young girls in America today, specifically how this uber-girly sub-culture, stemming from media and product marketers, is leading girls to confront body image issues and become sexualized at younger and younger ages.

Peggy Orenstein, the author of the book, attempts to determine whether pink-culture mania is merely an innocent phase or a sinister marketing plot with long-term negative impact. Orenstein travels to Disneyland, American Girl Place, the American International Toy Fair; visits a children's beauty pageant; attends a Miley Cyrus concert; tools around the Internet; and interviews parents, historians, psychologists, marketers, and others. She examines what the consumerist culture is doing to girls, and believes that when left to the advertisers, girls will learn to value what they look like and consume more than what they feel.

There seems to be solid evidence to back up this claim. According to the American Psychological Association, the emphasis on beauty and play-sexiness at ever-younger ages is increasing girls’ vulnerability to the pitfalls that most concern parents: eating disorders, negative body image, depression, risky sexual behavior. 50% of girls between the ages of 11 and 13 see themselves as overweight, and 80% of 13-year-olds have attempted to lose weight. Nearly half of six-year-old girls regularly using lipstick or lip gloss, and the percentage of eight- to twelve-year-old girls wearing eyeliner or mascara has doubled in the last two years. Meanwhile, the marketing of pink, pretty, and “sassy” has become a gigantic business: the Disney Princesses alone are pulling in four billion dollars in revenue annually.

It's no stretch to imagine how a subculture dominated by ultra-feminine and girlish stereotypes would contribute to identity development. Certain cultural concepts of femininity are aggressively and pervasively marketed to girls. These include the "princess" mindset that girls look good, are virginal and wait for the prince to arrive to rescue them. However, Barbie and her friends have taken the most heat in debates about the epidemic of body loathing. Some experts argue that Barbie perpetuates the idea that beauty, thinness and perfection are important. Barbie is all about how she looks, what she wears and what kind of cool car she drives. She is plastic, stiff, beautiful, and always smiling.

If she were alive, Barbie would be a woman standing 7 feet tall with a waistline of 18 inches and a bust of 38-40 inches. She would need to walk on all fours just to support her proportions. Yet media advertising, television and Hollywood reinforce her message, influencing what has become the American ideal of beauty. By the time a girl is 17 years old, she has received over 250,000 such commercial messages through the media. Body image disturbances are dangerous because they potentially lead to the fear of being overweight, and therefore to dieting and food restriction, to becoming malnourished and/or excessively thin, and ultimately to the onset of clinical eating disorders. Considering that ninety percent of American girls ages 3-10 own at least one Barbie doll, the impact such an unrealistic doll presents is considerable.

Do I believe Barbie caused my eating disorder and body image struggles? Frankly, no. It's too simple to blame such complex disorders on one object. But I'm so curious to know what you think. Did you play with Barbies and have princess fantasies as a girl? Do you believe these fantasies influenced how you see yourself in terms of body image and femininity? Did the pink culture send you down the wrong track, or are you a well-adjusted woman despite all the pink, thankyouverymuch?

Free People denim vest; thrifted Klovis dress; Gap sandals; agate necklace on leather strap; Anthropologie turquoise necklace; Dolly Python leather cuff


  1. First, I love that floral dress with the denim vest! You look fantastic!

    Second, yes I did play with Barbies and had lots of pink things, but I was also the only girl in Girl Scouts who refused to wear a skirt and instead wore pants for our troop photo.

    I think my body image issues stem from being teased as a child, having friends who were thin and beautiful and popular, moreso than because of what toys I played with.

    Although...now having a daughter of my own, it's something that I do want to keep an eye on. She's well rounded, big into princesses and pink, but also picks up black as her crayon/marker of choice and watches lots of Star Wars when her dad has her.

    I think in the end, it has a LOT to do with parental treatment. My parents are fantastic and I ended up okay because they validated me. I've already started to do the same with my daughter even though she's just four years old, telling her that she's beautiful but also smart, funny, creative, kind, strong, and brave. And above all, loved just because of who she is.

    Come take a look inside A Working Mom's Closet

  2. Thought-provoking post, Elissa. First, I chuckled at the memory because I had the Barbie "Dream Bus" AND airplane! (So we could play "stewardess," too!) But I've wondered about all of this too and will definitely read that book.

    Even though we never questioned Barbie, my mother did try to shield me from the worst aspects of "pink culture," I appreciate this now, but I still I wanted it. I recently told her that I wanted nothing more than one of those huge heads that little girls could practice applying makeup to (do you remember those? Was it Barbie?) But I was afraid to ask her for it because I knew she'd disapprove. When I told Mom this she felt bad! But I'm still glad she tried to raise me the way she did.

    I was tormented by other girls (and boys) too, but I'd like to think that being raised the way I was helped me to develop other strengths and resources. (At the same time, part of me thinks: A simple MAKEOVER could have made my life so much easier! Why didn't we do it?) It's complex, to say the least. Thanks for the great post.

  3. Great post, as always, so thoughtful and well written. I definitely loved Barbie as a girl. I had the camping set, plastic tent rather than camper, we're talking backwoods Barbie. I loved to making clothes for all my Barbies but never in pink!! I started boycotting the color at 6 and didn't have it in my wardrobe until about 26. Now I'm a clothing designer and I love bright pink.

    I love the line about acting out trashy soap style dramas. Yes, I did that to. I think Barbie looking like she does and having Ken as well, brings that aspect of play into focus for young girls.

    I don't have my own children but have put my 2 cents in for my niece, saying don't get her a Barbie or put her on the princess bandwagon. Ughhh, I can't stand all the marketing. On the other hand I think fashion is art and I have helped bring her sketches to life and make clothes for her Teddy bear and for herself.

  4. So, fun fact, apparently 200-300 years ago, pink was a colour for men, while blue was a colour for women because it represented fidelity, or something like that!
    But, yes, I used to LOVE Barbie. I think for a while I really did want to be like her - wanting blonde hair and blue eyes, for example, instead of my dark eyes and hair. I just think that, after a while, maybe because of good upbringing, maybe because I was really interested by powerful Queens - I still played with Barbies, but didn't idolize her - she was just a toy.
    By the time I was about 7 years old, I went to a Jewish elementary school and learnt about powerful women from the Old Testament, and never thought about them being blonde and fair - I mean, c'mon, they lived in the Middle East - I mostly realized that they'd lived in people's memories for thousands of years, and that was more important than how they looked. (I'm not religious, and I'm glad I'm not at a religious institution anymore, but you have to admit, women figures surviving thousands of years is very impressive).
    And, this might sound silly, but I think the real end of my Barbie-Envy was when I was 10 and read Anne of Green Gables - screw blonde hair and blue eyes, I wanted red hair and green eyes! It was still looking up to someone, even physically, but originally what attracted me to her was her character - I think I thought "hey, she's soooo cool, maybe if I had red hair..." So it wasn't COMPLETELY independent thinking, but it was still a DEFINITE step up from Barbie. Same goes for idolizing Jo March from Little Women, physically and mentally - we both have dark hair and eyes, so even if I wanted green eyes and red hair with Anne, I'd already encountered Jo and knew that it was ok to not look a certain way.
    Does that make any sense? Basically, I think it's only to be expected to be influenced by the media (though that's an entirely different story), but if a girl is surrounded by other powerful women - Queens in books, powerful book heroines - and has a relatively good upbringing, enough to discover these books and understand their worth - I think she might eventually be ok!

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post, and sorry this is such a long comment! :P
    - Laura S

  5. Ah...the Barbie conversation! I had them growing up as well, but I was never much of a doll kinda girl and I never had any of barbie's accessories, including Ken. I was mostly just interested in attaining new "outfits" for my barbie...some things never change, except now I get the new outfits!
    I don't think I ever viewed barbie as an ideal, or a reflection of how a woman should be. It simply never occurred to me that I should look like her at all. As young girls and teenagers we ALL go through some phase of hating our body shape, hair, nose or something about ourselves as we become more aware of how different we are from others and we begin to shape our individual identities. I had my own moments of self-loathing, however none of it was spurred on from an inanimate object, rather by my peers and the desire to fit a "norm" that I wasn't fitting.
    I am of the opinion that your parents are the ones who will largely shape your self-image. Mine always emphasized how smart and independent I was. They encouraged me to stay active in explore my interests. My parents NEVER used the word princess or made my looks be what defined me as a girl, instead they helped me shape my inside beauty and let me know i was valued and loved unconditionally.

    I am going to stop there because I really could go on for days....great post! great topic!


  6. Great post, Elissa. I think this is the scariest part: " . . . when left to the advertisers, girls will learn to value what they look like and consume more than what they feel." SO much input is "left to advertisers". It's hard, but necessary work to counter those messages. I love to see my young neices playing softball, chess, and doing their math homework.

    You brought back many memories for me of projecting my little self onto Barbie's glamorous life. And saving up for those tiny outfits and purses! And of course, I was feeling mighty fat compared to the little wasp-waisted b#tch!

    You look very cool, and your jewelry is gorgeous.

  7. This post is really interesting to me, because my parents wouldn't allow me to have Barbies when I was little for the very reason that they were disproportionate. Instead, I got American Girl dolls, but those took a bit of convincing and waiting because they were rather expensive. I agree with you, that it's too difficult to blame something as complex as an eating disorder and body issues on one simple thing. But I think that it's really important to watch what children are exposed to and be wary of how it'll affect them. So, no, I don't think Barbies are evil self-confidence destroyers, but I think it's important that people are aware of the message that they send and the image that they portray.


  8. I think I was lucky to grow up in a household where Barbies & soccer were both acceptable sources of fun. I don't think Barbie had as much of an affect on me as TV did though.

    I love this outfit -- it's very 90s in the coolest way possible. <3

  9. I had a ton of Barbies growing up. I wasn't really concerned about how they looked so I guess that's different from a lot of experiences. Most of mine ran around without clothes. I still really love pink but I'm not afraid to get dirty.

  10. On iPod so my comment will be brief, unfortunately... I could wax on...

    I didn't play Barbies even tho my sis had a ton and I could have. I was a scifi nerd and sat in the back of the class reading fan fiction and chewing on my hair. I hated dresses and never really bought into the girly stuff and makeup, but was still painfully shy, hated my plump pale self and hid until well into highschool.

    Ironically I wear more dresses than I do pants now. I agree that mass marketing is doing all of the things you suggest, but I never bought into any if it and still hated myself. Maybe the truth us that ai DID believe it all down deep but found Barbie annoying :)

  11. PS: I love your posts and how much thought u put into your topics. Kick ass vest too!!!

  12. I just wanted to stop by and say congratulations for getting selected as a Links a la Mode selection last week. I'm not at all surprised!

  13. As the mother of twin girls, this post made me stand to attention (well sit straighter anyway). I love your thoughtful and thought provoking posts. My girls love pink and princesses, but also lego and math so who knows. I had a lot of Barbies as a kid, and a lot of body image issues, but I am not sure how much was the Barbies and how much family issues. Thanks again for your post.

  14. I did play with Barbies...but very long ago. It has been my observation that the pink culture has really turned up the heat in the past decade or so. I see it as ENTIRELY created by marketers.

  15. I heard an interview with the author of the book you are talking about on a local NPR radio station where I live in Southern Oregon. I absolutely believe that the "pink" culture especially the enculturation of make-up at an early age. Let's not forget marketing underwear styles that are inappropriate for children (ie thongs) sexualizes girls at a way too early age. I believe that part of the problem is that black is the new pink. When I think back to my pre-teen years I never wore black not to mention skulls or anything like that. It would've been unheard of.

  16. This is a really thought-provoking post. I'm not sure playing with Barbies has influenced me like that, but then again, who can really say that for sure? I guess I'm doing fine in this pink world, but it would be interesting to know how I would have turned out without all the media pinkness.

    Now the reason I stopped by your blog: You inspired me to start thrifting. Thank you.

  17. Personally I didn't really like my barbies I had as a child. Their legs didn't bend (not very good for riding horses or sitting or anything btw), their hair (how could you possibly call it luscious?) frizzed up and tangled in such terrible ways and when I tried to cut it to let the poor thing's hair grow out it didn't grow out at all! Their clothes were so immensely difficult to get on and off. (their skin was so sticky and the clothes so tight) Eventually I learned not to change their clothes more than a couple times a year. (They had their winter clothes and their other clothes.) Plus her head fell off all the time. Overall it seemed that Barbie lived a much sadder life than my other toys.


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