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The seedy past of a toy icon

Generations of kids have grown up playing with Barbie. But do you know the reason why a doll marketed to children ended up with such unrealistically curvy proportions?

In 1956, the co-founder of Mattel, Ruth Handler, was on a trip to Switzerland with her daughter Barbara. While she was there, the 15-year-old Barbara caught sight of a plastic doll in a tobacconists. Based on a comic strip character of a high-end call girl called Lilli, the plastic doll was being marketed to men as a novelty gift and was particularly popular with stag parties.

Handler bought three of the dolls and took them back to the US. Three years later, she introduced her version at the American International Toy Fair in New York. Barbie, named after her daughter, was born.

The original Lilli had moulded eyelashes, red lips and fingernails, high heels, earrings and a “come hither” look. Undeniably a sex doll, she was not designed with children in mind. Barbie, on the other hand, was touted as a ‘teenager and fashion model’. The heels, curves and make-up remained, as did the pouting lips and sultry expression. Barbie was a lot sexier than the other dolls of her time. Handler justified this by saying: “Every girl needed a doll through which to project herself into a dream of her future. If she was imagining what she would be like when she was 16 or 17, it was stupid to play with a doll that had a flat chest.”

Barbie was accepted as a children’s plaything, but many were unaware that she followed on in a tradition of sex dolls that began in the 17th century when bored Dutch sailors made their own ‘dames de voyage’ out of cloth for some light relief during the many months of isolation at sea.

If this “projection of a girl’s future” were real, her long thin neck would render her incapable of lifting her head; her 16-inch waist would only allow room for half a liver and a few inches of intestine; and her child’s size 3 foot and 6-inch ankles would mean she could only crawl, not walk. Her bust would also be twice the circumference of her waist, making her unnaturally top-heavy.

For more on this topic, check out the latest issue of Broccoli & Brains magazine. Out now.