Dissecting Barbie: Bold Beauty Conference Exposes Stereotypes

Hairy Barbie, Steroids Barbie, Barbie Behind Bars. At the hands of Saint Mary’s students, the Mattel icon was spray-painted, injected, pasted with body hair, and dressed poorly, among other indignities. Then she was shockingly displayed.

The Barbie modification exhibit of about 100 dolls was the highlight of the third annual Bold Beauty Conference on April 28. The event examines pressures that bombard women about appearances, even as girls playing with dolls.

Katie Cuda ’11 created Barbie Behind Bars last spring as part of Female Beauty, a class that challenges societal standards of women’s appearances. This year, Cuda helped organize the Bold Beauty Conference based on the popular class.
Katie Cuda ’11 created Barbie Behind Bars last spring as
part of Female Beauty, a class that challenges societal
standards of women’s appearances. This year, Cuda
helped organize the Bold Beauty Conference based on
the popular class.

“I did Barbie Behind Bars,” said Katie Cuda ’11, a communication studies major. “I put her in an orange jumpsuit, chopped her hair off, and gave her a black eye and tattoos.” She used her own childhood Barbie for the project. “It felt good,” she said. “It was fun making her into the reality of a woman.”

Bold Beauty stems from Female Beauty, a course taught by Terri L. Russ, assistant professor of communication studies. “The conference provides a way for students to learn about ways they can re-evaluate their own understandings and practices of beauty in order to move beyond the stringent demands of society," Russ said.

The upper-level class has students of the previous year organize the conference as an independent study. Cuda and five other communication studies seniors organized this year’s event: Molly Gahagan ’11, Christina Grasso ’11, Hannah Beth Fischer ’11, Annie Sofranko ’11, and Elizabeth Adams ’11.

“People say you have to take this class before you graduate,” Gahagan said. “It brings to attention a lot of issues and a lot of pressures that women, especially young women, face in society. It helps you be more confident that you don’t have to fit into a cookie cutter.”

For her project, Sara Zwolski ’11, communication studies, examined the television show What Not to Wear. “(Hosts) Stacy and Clinton bash the women for their appearances and then teach them how to dress well,” Zwolski explained. “In the show, there is a clear connection between dressing poorly and being unhappy and then dressing well and being rewarded with the approval of others, and then becoming happy.”

Her project focused on the “social body,” the idea that it is acceptable to make unsolicited judgments about a woman’s appearance: “Friends, family, strangers, and the hosts feel it is appropriate to comment on the personal style choices of the women featured on the show,” she explained.

She’s learned to recognize such problems. “The class has given me the tools to look at advertisements, artifacts, and the actions of others with a critical lens,” she said. “To be a strong woman, you must be aware. As Terri (Russ) once said, this class isn't about telling you that you can't wear makeup or that you shouldn’t take time on your appearance, it is about understanding and owning the decisions you make.”