It’s safe to say that beauty icons today come in all shapes, sizes, colors and even genders; witness RuPaul as the first face of MAC’s Viva Glam line and Dame Edna as the face of a collection this year.

One enduring beauty icon has just turned 50, and her appeal is so far proving to be as timeless as that of Marilyn Monroe. Barbie turned 50 on March 9th amid controversy caused by a West Virginia lawmaker who wants to ban sales of the doll in his state because he believes she represents a poor body image for girls. Whether or not you agree with him, it is difficult to argue with the fact that Barbie — the brand — has invaded the homes of millions of girls and women in hundreds of countries around the world.

The original Barbie

The original Barbie

Barbie’s origins are well-known now; she was the brainchild of Ruth Handler, a founder of Mattel, who wanted to give her daughter, Barbara, a doll like her teenage self instead of the paper dolls she was playing with. Using a rather naughty German doll as her prototype, Handler created Barbara Millicent Roberts from Willows, Wisconsin. She debuted at the American International Toy Fair wearing a black and white zebra-striped swimsuit along with high heels and sported a physique that owed much to that other 50s blonde bombshell, Marilyn. Barbie had a sly, sideways glance and the kind of hair associated with California surfer girls.

Early on, it was easy to see that this was no ordinary doll. Barbie had careers and remained resolutely single, despite the introduction of her boyfriend Ken to the Mattel line in 1961. While some of these careers were strictly pink-collar (nurse, teacher, flight attendant), Barbie broke the glass ceiling to become a pilot and an astronaut in addition to being an Olympic medalist in several sports and running for President of the United States.

Over the years, Barbie’s look has changed too. From a flirtatious glance to the wide-eyed, open sunny smile of today, the doll is now available with different hair colors and 20 skin tones. She is even available with facial features that are decidedly eastern Asian, southern Asian and African. As a child, my mother bought me Midge, Barbie’s best friend, so that I’d have a doll with my hair color. Today I own a dozen Barbies with red hair.

Ten years ago, on Barbie’s 40th birthday, 23 writers as diverse as Erica Jong and Jane Smiley came together to contribute essays to a collection titled "The Barbie Chronicles." Within the pages of the book, the writers took on the mystique, the culture and the controversies surrounding the 11½ inch plastic figure. Nothing was spared, from the over-sized breasts and the unbelievably tiny waist (enlarged in 2000) to the chaste nature of her relationship with Ken.

Redken Extreme Iron Repair

A Barbie-themed collection from Stila.

Love her or hate her, Barbie has become a beauty icon in addition to being a fashionista. The doll is wildly popular in Japan where Barbie Retail was launched in 2003 — stores offering clothing and accessories for adult women. Two years ago, the Barbie Loves MAC makeup collection broke sales records for the Lauder Corporation and this year there are Barbie-themed makeup collections available from Stila and the Canadian company Cake Beauty. The products are heavily slanted to pastels (probably to match Barbie’s Dream House — pink, pink and more pink) and sugary in scent.

For as long as there are little girls, there will most likely be Barbies. And as long as Barbie looks the way she does, there will most likely be controversy. But one thing is clear: the doll was born in the conservative 1950s, and yet, Barbie remains single, childless and independent. Perhaps a forward-thinking role model for generations to come.


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