What is Beauty? Part 3: Barbs for Barbie or Me?


This blog post is part of a three part series on the topic “What is Beauty?”. This series started in Part 1 where I was invited to speak to a 5th grade class on the topic of beauty. In Part 2 I reflect on the experience of working with this class, and the reactions the children had to my experiences in wearing my fat suit. Finally, in Part 3 I will discuss my trip to a national talk show on television under cover as a larger bodied person.

As a child of the sixties, one of my favorite pastimes was playing with Barbie dolls. I have a vivid memory of the excitement that I felt on my ninth birthday when I received the majestic blue velvet Lady Guinevere gown, spectacularly laced with gold trim. It cost an exorbitant $5.00, surpassing the cost of most of my own dresses. Immediately, it became one of my most prized possessions. If you had asked me then how I would feel about meeting a real life Barbie, my enthusiasm would have been boundless. However, years later, as a psychologist and activist for people in larger bodies, my sentiments toward Barbie changed. I came to see her as a representation of a body image so unrealistic that the likelihood of attaining her dimensions was akin to being born with high-heeled feet.

About 20 years ago, I was asked to appear on a national television talk show, “In Person with Rolanda”. At the time, I was getting some attention for using a fat suit disguise to expose prejudice based on size. The topic of the program was “Teenagers Desperate For Beauty” and I was to be the expert psychologist who would dupe the audience into thinking I was “adiposely challenged”, only to later reveal the truth by displaying my fat suit with its big blue cotton stuffed boobs.

Since there were so many guests, we had to wait offstage, but could watch the show live on a monitor. Most striking was the human ersatz Barbie, a British woman named Cindy Jackson, who had undergone 23 cosmetic surgeries to look like the doll. The show began with clips of a Barbie doll dressed in a gold, metallic mini-dress with matching earrings alongside Cindy wearing the identical outfit. The resemblance was uncanny. The studio cameras then panned to a pretty 12-year-old girl who wanted to have liposuction on her thighs. She thought her legs were too fat and could no longer endure taunts such as “thunder thighs”. When Cindy proclaimed her own right to choose the lifestyle of Barbie, the girl’s mother sniped, “Barbie’s a doll!”

As the snide comments continued, I observed the remaining medley of guests. There was a 15 year old who appeared on the cover of “Seventeen” magazine that featured an article about her struggles with anorexia. On the show, she described her agony in eating a single strand of spaghetti. There was also the former “Miss Fitness America” who would recount her battle with bulimia. There was Emme, the first plus size fashion model, And finally, there was a beautiful 16 year old girl whose face had been slashed in a vicious, random attack on the subway. She was accompanied by her Park Avenue plastic surgeon who was to demonstrate his miraculous handiwork by showing gruesome images of her face after the attack and impressive pictures following the surgery.

Offstage, everyone was discussing how size and appearance shouldn’t matter. None of the guests were aware that I was in disguise. Ironically, as much as I tried, I couldn’t break into the conversation. I became acutely aware of being ignored and began to experience that left-out feeling in the pit of my stomach reminiscent of seventh grade dances. At one point, an employee who had done my makeup before I donned the fat suit, walked by as if I wasn’t there. She proceeded to do a double take and exclaimed, “Oh! I didn’t realize it was you! You looked like somebody’s mother”. Adding insult to injury, the plastic surgeon got up and brought cups of water to all of the guests except me!

I couldn’t hold out any longer even though I knew that I would soon reveal my cover to all. As soon as the other guests learned I was really a thin psychologist and activist, I was treated with dignity, respect and admiration. The surgeon schmoozed with me and gave me one of his gold-embossed business cards. Even Barbie, who was an outcast for different reasons, suddenly noticed my existence and became friendly. After the show, countless members of the audience approached me with praise for my work.

The sad truth was I was only taken seriously when I took off the suit. Then, I conformed to a socially sanctioned norm of what is attractive. Ironically, my sentiments were shared by many in that studio who understood that Cindy’s emulation of Barbie was an extreme capitulation to unhealthy ideals about body image.

But there really was nothing extreme about my appearance when I was wearing the suit. Yet, perhaps in the minds of fellow guests and the show’s staff, I was an oddity, somebody who deserved to be treated like so many people in larger bodies are treated. In the end, I was just a fat lady, someone to be discounted and ignored.