What I Meant to Say

Wendy Babiak's Visions and Revisions

Gender Identity, Body Image, Empowering Women Artists: Playing with Dolls


Several weeks ago Amy King shared a link to Beth Robinson’s Strange Dolls in an email asking us about our own support of fellow women artists; she’d commissioned this talented doll artist (did you know there are doll ARTISTS?) to make dolls of herself and her partner Ana, both with miniature copies of their books (Ana’s first, Amy’s most recent). How cool are they? I was hoping to commission one of myself (with my book) and my daughter, but I’m afraid at this point we simply can’t afford it; as much as I’d like to support other female artists, right now I’ve got to make sure we can keep food on the table. (I’ll have to limit my support to reading their books and writing reviews.) So I’ve been thinking about making dolls myself. I’ve long wanted to make dolls, since I saw, years ago, in a Native American arts magazine, a Lakota doll artist’s work. So I’ve been researching doll making (I’ve already got experience in sculpture, sewing, and beadwork, so it’s not outside my skill set). One of the things that make these particular dolls cool is that they’re ball-jointed dolls, so they can be posed in life-like ways. Turns out there’s a whole subculture surrounding them. Exploring the links at Beth Robinson’s site, and doing more research, I felt like I’d gone down a rabbit hole into another world I’d had no idea existed. These dolls — I’m just talking about the mass-produced ones — go for several hundreds of dollars, and then there are the accessories (clothes, wigs, jewelry, makeup!). Folks pose them and take pictures. I can only imagine what they get up to, especially since, unlike the angels in the movie Dogma, they’re not built like Barbie and Ken. You know, they’re, uhm, anatomically complete. Which is fine. Whatever makes your socks go up and down, I’ve always said, as long as everyone’s of age and consenting. I’m no prude, though I do think, like Sam Harris, that we probably ought to examine our own cultural attitudes toward women’s bodies and sexuality and see if we aren’t simply manifesting the other side of the pathological coin as the Taliban.

One of the most talented and thoughtful of the doll artists I’ve run across online is Marina Bychkova, who makes Enchanted Dolls (do check them out…they have to be seen to be believed), the collectors of which seem almost obsessed. One of her dolls, called State Property, clearly deals with gender politics. A recent blog post shows her investigating the cultural foot fetishes that caused untold numbers of women to have their feet deformed and their mobility hindered. So she’s clearly not unaware of the inequities that have been dealt women in their relations with patriarchy and the burden our biology, in such relation, has been.

Something about all these BJDs bothers me, though. They’re based on the Japanese anime aesthetic, which isn’t exactly realistic. Not that Barbie’s any better, with her wasp waste, twiggy arms, and feet built for heels. (I made my daughter get rid of all her Barbies when she was very young, when I found her in front of the mirror, in her underwear, pinching in the sides of her still-round little-girl belly, clearly trying to make herself like them, and unhappy with her inability to do so.) Even Beth Robinson’s dolls sport elongated physiques, crow heads or no.

The other night, watching an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (a show, remember, made in the 80s), Dr. Crusher was treating a woman who’d pulled a ligament in her neck and shoulder, high diving on the holodeck. And no wonder: she was so skinny she looked like she’d spent time in a concentration camp, bones and tendons showing through her papery skin. The measly musculature probably wouldn’t be able to support a hearty sneeze, much less any amount of G-force, a big head barely balanced over bony shoulders. It’s hard to believe that such anorexia was once considered stylish, and not really that long ago; but it’s true, and I think, culturally, we’re only now coming out of that mass mental illness (now, apparently, we think artificially tanned, slightly greasy, hormonally and surgically altered bodies are sexy…not sure that’s any better, but at least the models get the pleasure of an occasional cheeseburger).

I can’t help but wonder if such weakness has been considered sexy, like the “golden-lily” feet of old China, because it makes women easy prey (something our tight, narrow skirts and heels do, btw, which is why I don’t wear them). I’d like to see someone make dolls in a diversity of healthy, strong shapes. I guess that’s what I’ll do.

Author: Wendy Babiak

Poet, permaculturalist, lay Carmelite. Pretty sure the world needs more love and less politics.

5 thoughts on “Gender Identity, Body Image, Empowering Women Artists: Playing with Dolls

  1. Pingback: “Charge hell with a bucket of water.” –Liz Carpenter « amy king’s alias

  2. As your husband and friend, I try to leave you “A Room of One’s Own” for artist space, and it’s often easy to do so, as my job is pretty delimited by protocols and numbers and requires no such creativity or space. But I had to jump in here and say this is an excellent post, which if I had read browsing the net, I would have had to say something, such as, “Great post!” I too found this sub-culture fascinating and am glad you took me down the rabbit-hole. People who are not writers or poets, not women or into gender politics, just regular guys, mechanics, plumbers, policeman, husbands, fathers, and brothers would enjoy reading this! I think it’s very important for us men and women to sit down and talk together about how we see ourselves and each other. Great job! Very interesting, Wendy – Thanks.

    • Brian, I welcome your comments, always. I know, too, that as a psychiatrist you’ve dealt with the issues of body image AND the commodification of women’s bodies as they play out in your patients’ lives. The female pathology of low self-esteem is obvious: eating disorders, depression, tolerance of pathological treatment from domestic partners…sometimes even leading to suicide. What many people may not realize is that men are also harmed by the media’s portrayal of women’s bodies when they buy into these unrealistic ideals, as well as the insistence that we are sex objects rather than people; their ability to relate in a healthy way with the women in their lives is tragically impeded, which causes all sorts of social and professional problems.

  3. Pingback: Why I love her – Kali, feminism and eating disorders « Understanding mind

  4. Pingback: Schoenburg: A population the census does not count – Yale Daily News | Census Count

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