Culture At Large

Why Barbie was destined for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue

Josh Larsen

Having Barbie appear in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is an undeniable stunt, a surefire way for a print publication to get some viral attention. (Remember that Rolling Stone Dzhokhar Tsarnaev cover?) Yet in retrospect, the convergence of Barbie and SI’s annual exercise in shamelessness was inevitable.

When it comes to body image, we’ve reached a point at which no human being in his or her natural physical state could meet the standards set by advertisers and other mainstream influencers. In a way, putting Barbie in the swimsuit issue is something of a cultural confession. We’re admitting that our idea of beauty has become so ridiculous – so contingent on Photoshopping and breast implants and whatever else is being dreamt up in cosmetic-surgery labs – that at this point it can only be represented by a bizarrely proportioned plastic doll.

But does this admission also signal a surrender? And where is the place in all of this for a Christian understanding of body image, especially as it relates to our belief that humans are God’s image-bearers?

This latter question is one we’ve wrestled with at Think Christian at different times and in different ways – all of which have some bearing on this Barbie-Sports Illustrated kerfuffle.

Especially pertinent is a 2013 piece from TC columnist Karen Swallow Prior on “Goth Barbies and cultural desires.” Discussing both Barbie and her latest competition – the Monster High dolls – Prior points out that it’s not the toys themselves that are the problem as much as it is the amount of influence we allow them in forming our desires. When Barbies – or Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues, for that matter – cultivate our desires in a way that drowns out what God would have us desire, we’re headed in the wrong direction.

Putting Barbie in the swimsuit issue is something of a cultural confession.

Prior also covered the Dove beauty campaign for TC, suggesting that at its well-meaning heart is still a troubling sort of narcissism. In fact, revisiting the Dove topic over at Her.meneutics last week, she inadvertently anticipated some of the same concerns about beauty and body image that are now being raised in wake of the Barbie news.

If Prior attempts to reorient our understanding of beauty in that Her.meneutics piece, I used the occasion of Elizabeth Taylor’s death in 2011 to wonder if Christians might actually undervalue the gift of physical beauty. Have our fears of pride, envy and lust – all of which admittedly converge in something like the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue – caused us to deny that there is anything good about how we, by God’s hand, have been formed?

Lastly, on the topic of swimsuits in general, TC columnist Caryn Rivadeneira kicked off last year’s summer season with a piece on the “God-honoring freedom of the bikini.” Is there any way Barbie’s appearance in Sports Illustrated reflects the freedom Rivadeneira talks about here?

Let us know what you think. Stunt or not, Barbie’s appearance in Sports Illustrated has raised concerns that continue to strike a nerve. Does this move on the magazine’s part – and the response to it - represent a cultural shift to which Christians should respond? If so, how?

Topics: Culture At Large, News & Politics, Social Trends, Media, Home & Family, Sex