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November 15, 2013

Augmented Mannequins Figuring Prominently: The Globalization of Barbie

Based on the comically exaggerated mannequins popping up in Venezuelan storefronts, this amply illustrated NY Times article proves you no longer need Photoshop to bring together extreme proportions and the female form.

As the Times tells it, the mannequins are the brain child of factory owner Eliezer Alvarez, who “created the kind of woman he thought the public wanted—one with a bulging bosom and cantilevered buttocks.” The strategy worked, boosting sales enough so that Alvarez could build a new workshop. The article observes that “cosmetic procedures are so fashionable in Venezuela that a woman with implants is often casually referred to as ‘an operated woman,’” and points out that “mannequin makers jokingly refer to their creations as being ‘operated’ as well.”

Although the article suggests that the misproportioned mannequins match the aesthetic ideal of Venezuelan women, Meridith Kohut’s photo tells a different story. The female passersby captured in this image do not appear to be identifying with the new standard of Venezuelan beauty. They regard it, instead, with boredom, befuddlement, and disdain. The fact that the mannequin is displayed without arms suggests that the only parts of a woman that matter are those that can be sexualized.

Scholar Jean Kilbourne has documented the ways in which the segmenting of women in fashion photography and advertising (removing or displaying fragmented body parts) dehumanizes women; Kilbourne explains that a mannequin has “no depth, no totality; she is an aggregate of parts that have been made acceptable.” It is, therefore, unsurprising that the real women in Kohut’s photo fail to approximate the mannequin’s body type, and her skin color is noticeably lighter than the photo’s other subjects. In fact, the mannequin’s narrow hips, broad bosom, and long legs resemble a U.S. American icon of unattainable beauty: Barbie. When student Galia Slayen constructed a life-size Barbie that kept the doll’s improbable proportions intact, the finished product resembled a more rudimentary version of Alvarez’s mannequins:

Slayen uses her Barbie to raise awareness about eating disorders, dressing her in a size 00 skirt that Slayen, herself, wore when she battled anorexia. This abnormal silhouette is common in U.S. popular culture. DeviantART user Oceanstarlet (a.k.a. Meridith Viguet) produced a satirical tutorial on how to draw a Disney Princess which highlights key features that echo Barbie and the Venezuelan mannequins: ample but perky breasts, narrow hips, long and lean legs, and “feet as small as a Tang-dynasty Chinese girl’s.”

For that reason, the New York Times’s ethnocentric exoticizing of the Venezuelan mannequins is misplaced. The market demand for products that convince women of the inadequacy of their natural bodies is a global phenomenon. Kohut’s photos hint at solution, however. After remembering that mannequins (like dolls and cartoons) are manufactured products produced largely by men for commercial purposes, we should begin to think about ways to turn dysfunctional icons of feminine beauty on their heads.

– Karrin Anderson | @KVAnderson

NY Times slideshow: An Exaggerated Vision of the Female Form in Venezuela

(photos 1, 3 & 4: Meridith Kohut for The New York Times: caption: “The transformation has been both of the woman and of the mannequin,” said Ms. Corro, the factory co-owner. photo 2: Galia Slayen via HuffPost. illustration: Oceanstarlet (a.k.a. Meridith Viguet)

  • BooksAlive

    Every department store lingerie department I go into is full of racks of bras for basketball boobs. Ugh!

    • bks3bks

      Full racks of bras? Is this humor or just a reflection on how fat we’re getting?

  • Ian

    The mannequins are augmented simply because that’s what store owners buy. If store owners didn’t want them, then they wouldn’t be made. The store owners buy them because they get attention. Store owners are banking on this attention translating into sales of clothing. Now… does it?? I don’t know. Apparently women buy more clothes when they see them modeled on mannequins that closely resemble themselves. (link below). So if the store is in a market with many “augmented women,” (ie Venezuela) then the augmented mannequin makes practical sense. If it were in a place like the UK, where the average woman is 5′3″, 154 lbs, and size 16, then they’d be an insult or a joke, and would probably HURT sales.

    Alvarez’ wife co-owns the mannequin factory with him. I’d be curious to hear more of her side… does she oppose the augmented mannequins on ethical grounds, or does she welcome her husband’s new innovation to capitalize on dysfunctional beauty ideals?

    I think your point about the first picture pretty much sums it up. If the consumer is turned off by a marketing device, then it won’t be repeated.

    This is what the mannequins look like in San Francisco’s chinatown (always make me laugh):

    Plus-size mannequins in the UK:

  • Susan Donovan

    We have these in the Bronx too. To sell the “booty pants” as I’ve come to call them. It’s why I can’t find any clothes for work in my own neighborhood. I don’t know if that’s what the young people around here really want either or what the dynamic is.

    I complain once and was called a “fuckin’ feminist” in a nasty tone.
    I said “why thank you!”

  • Susan Donovan

    Of course, it’s telling that the times had to go to ANOTHER COUNTRY to notice this when it’s going on in the Bronx just three miles from their main office. We are so damned invisible it’s not even funny. ooooo Let me read some more articles about “artisanal” Brooklyn ugh.

  • Scarabus

    Reminds me of the creepily perverse dolls (poupées) created by Surrealist Hans Bellmer.

  • Jim Watson

    I see these all over the place and as a father of three girls I am scared they will begin to feel this is the body form they need to have to fit in with other girls. It is frightening and I wish the store owners would begin to use mannequins that represent what the true form of a woman is and forget about the Barbie factor.

  • Alice Ross

    Mannequins are just man made and they are often used in stores as models for the clothes that they are selling. Now, as they are a product of human creations the makers can make their mannequins in perfect body statistics and these mannequins can really catch the attentions of the people passing by and which then in return will help invite customers. -

  • Scarabus

    Yeah. And “figuring prominently.”

  • Scarabus

    I’m not current on the scholarship, but the usual line on “Venus of Willendorf”type figurines was that they were deliberate distortions intended to emphasize fertility emblems like the wide pelvis and breasts. But I always thought they might also be more realistic representations of actual women — maybe specially nurtured priestesses.

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