Out of all the news coming out of Ukraine in the past week, perhaps the most trivial is the story that emerged about model Valeria Lukyanova. Known as the “real life Barbie” for her numerous plastic surgeries to resemble the plastic doll have earned her Internet celebrity, Lukyanova recently said she plans to eventually subsist sans food and water.
What’s not trivial however, is the problematic idea that the same society that has been quick to mock her delusional and unhealthy lifestyle and remark on her physique – surgically reconstructed to resemble the Mattel doll’s grapefruit-sized doe eyes, bodacious bust and impossibly narrow waistline – continues to condone the idea that women’s bodies can be judged as though they are works of art. It’s this idea that leads to, most often in less extreme manifestations, behaviors and unhealthy senses of self-seen with Lukyanova.
While the Mattel doll, which has frequently been pointed to as a source of creating unrealistic expectations of the female form, dates back to 1959, this concept is certainly not a new one and the feminine physique has been under the critical eye since the time of Venus de Milo.
But appreciation of beauty, regardless of whether the medium is on a flat canvas or in flesh, is not the problem, for appreciation implies an acceptance of something in its form as is.
The problem lies in the love/hate relationship society seems to have with the need to “perfect” the female body. The relationship that at times has served as a muse for some of the greatest works of art, has formed much of the fabric of popular culture in all genres and can still be heard on top 40 radio stations today. But at other times has resulted in the frenzy of unhealthy dieting trends and obsessions with perfecting “thigh gaps,” “washboard abs” and “spring break bodies.”
The problem lies in that we are all critics. Females, who are more frequently represented solely for their bodies in pop culture than their male counterparts (Can you remember the last song you heard about a male’s hips or lips?), are thus more frequently falling victim to this critical gaze in trying to conform with these standards created. Behaviors reported are less extreme than those of the Ukranian model, but nonetheless unhealthy in their senses of self-image and self-worth.
On this year’s cover of the 50th anniversary of Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue, an annual collector’s issue that has featured the svelte figurines of supermodels such as Christie Brinkley, Tyra Banks and Kate Upton, will feature an image of an actual Barbie doll in all her vinyl voluptuousness and waifish wonderment. The cover is a joint initiative by Sports Illustrated and Mattel in a campaign they’re calling “#unapologetic.”
While the intent of the campaign is certainly one that should be lauded – no female, or male for that matter, should feel the need to apologize for his or her physical form, even if they are the standard that much of Western and slowly Eastern society has come to define by – the issue of placing the female body under the critical eye is unresolved.
Appreciating bodies as purely functional forms would not resolve the issue and likely deprive the world of some of its greatest art. However until bodies can be appreciated for their ability to do many of the things we never hear songs about (Can you remember the last song you heard about how fast a woman could run?), but can be severely damaged by an emphasis on aesthetics, perhaps a heavier emphasis on criticizing functional abilities over topical will create a healthier dynamic.
Divya Kumar is a senior majoring in economics and mass communications.