This picture — a woman marked up for the plastic surgery she would require if she were to look like Barbie — captures in a moment what Dove’s Evolution video took over a minute to convey — the media images and fashion icons that we aspire to emulate are constructions. Like billboard signs and magazine editorials, the pictures are manipulations that distort our sense of normal bodies.
We are trapped in a narcissistic world of images, where we must self-surveil our bodies with beauty as one of our primary goals. We invest in and manipulate our bodies and engage in body regimes to cultivate our physiques, often towards unattainable goals of perfection. We become subjects (in the Foucauldian sense) to our own projects of becoming, as we police ourselves and internalize a normalizing gaze. The only way to achieve these kinds of bodies, like Barbie’s proportions in this image, is through dramatic, invasive cosmetic procedures. Yet, we still labor over our bodies, continually trying to shape it in accords of dominant ideals. We have forgotten (or simply ignored) that these kinds of bodies are fantastical images.
As Naomi Wolf argued in The Beauty Myth, we are trapped in a cycle of cosmetics, beauty aids, diets, and exercise fanaticism; however, our bodies are no longer the same prisons Wolf envisioned. With the new advances in cosmetic surgery, we can achieve the near impossible. The important question to ask is why do we do this to our bodies? Increasingly, we have gone from being judged on our “good works” to our “good looks.” We place a high premium on the look and shape of our bodies, as it is the visible sign of our moral status and class position. Here, the Barbie physique may be possible if you have enough cash.
Amanda M. Czerniawski is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Temple University. She specializes in bodies and culture, gender and sexuality, and medical sociology. Her past research projects involved the development of height and weight tables and the role of plus-size models in constructions of beauty. Her current research focuses on the contested role of the body in contemporary feminist discourse.