What do these two have in common?

Barbie + Doryphorus

Barbie and her Greek friend.

One is a renowned piece of ancient art, the other, an increasingly controversial children’s toy.

First released in 1959 by Mattel Inc., the Barbie doll is now a ubiquitous part of American culture. Available in over 2,000 different editions, over one billion Barbie dolls have been sold in 150 countries. The Barbie is typically made of synthetic plastic, and is primarily found on the shelves of toy stores and in little girls’ playrooms.

Around 440 BC, the Greek sculptor Polyclitus crafted Doryphorus (“spear carrier”). The original sculpture has since been destroyed; the one pictured above is a Roman copy. Originally made of bronze, this ancient copy is in marble. It is on display in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples.

Coming from opposite ends of history, these artifacts share one central value – they are depicting the ideal human body.

Polyclitus was an expert in human proportion, however, this work was (intentionally) disproportional. He probably was not depicting a particular spear carrier that he knew. Instead, he was imagining what the body of the perfect spear carrier might look like – the best shoulder width, height, arm length, and (for aesthetic reasons) head size. Everything about Doryphorus is a bit off, on purpose, and consequently we see a very handsome man. He looks capable. But if you look closely, you’ll notice that the left arm and leg are being held up by extraneous bits on marble – the limbs don’t support the weight of the rest of the body.

The Barbie doll’s inaccurate proportions has been a great source of criticism for the toy. The dolls certainly don’t stand on their own, and, if she were a full-grown living person, her slender extremities would not support her long torso and oversized head. She would also be dangerously – perhaps, fatally – underweight, given her above-average height.

People care a lot about how Barbie dolls can and do negatively affect young girls‘ perception of themselves and their body image – this is a really good thing. And it’s a really good thing that our society is having this conversation now.

However, I’m really fascinated by the fact that basically as long as we as a human race have been portraying ourselves, we have been portraying ourselves inaccurately and ideally. It makes me wonder if, just like little American girls might wish they had blonde hair and blue eyes, little Greek boys wished that they had bigger heads and longer legs. Furthermore, it makes me think that no matter how much we criticize Barbie, or how many average-looking dolls we buy, the human race will still always portray ourselves as “better” than what we ever can actually be. Maybe it’s in our nature.

What do you think? Is the desire to see ourselves as something we’re not just in our DNA? If so, is fighting it a losing battle?

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