Over the summer, Pittsburgh-based artist Nickolay Lamm released a Photoshop project destined to go viral: “Normal Barbie” imagined what a Barbie doll would look like if she had the proportions of an average 19-year-old woman. Responses poured in: Where could people buy a doll like that? The answer: nowhere. When Co.Design asked Barbie’s lead designer at Mattel if the company would ever release a more realistically proportioned doll, the answer was a roundabout Why should we?
Mattel may not want to alter its magic formula, but plenty of designers over the years have tried to, including Lamm, who now plans to produce 5,000 “Lammily” dolls (read the full report from our sister site Co.Exist). They have created dolls that run against the Barbie grain for various reasons, whether it’s more realistic body proportions, more racial diversity, a more age-appropriate look for young girls or even more body hair. The problem is, even with plenty of backlash against her–surrounding questions like whether she’s suitably feminist or affects girls’ eating habits and body image issues–Barbie sells. Dolls that try to encapsulate a healthier alternative? Not so much.
A quick history of dolls that could have been a contender for the anti-Barbie crown:
In 1991, the Happy To Be Me doll debuted from a company called High Self-Esteem Toys Corp. The doll’s mission, according to a New York Times story at the time, was “to help young girls develop realistic body images and accept themselves as they are.” The Caucasian doll had a wider waist, larger feet, shorter legs and a shorter neck. A year later, her creator, Cathy Meredig, who poured $90,000 of her own money into manufacturing the line, started developing dolls of different races and ethnicities as well. It’s not entirely clear what happened, but Happy To Be Me is only available second-hand on eBay, and no toy company exists at the phone number once listed for High Self-Esteem Toy Corp.
And then there’s “Feral Cheryl,” an Australian doll modeled after environmental protesters, who were nicknamed “ferals.” The doll has dreads, piercings, and–twist!–pubic hair. She wears tie-dyed tube tops and wraparound skirts. Her creator, Lee Duncan, inspired by her* Barbie-obsessed niece, came up with the concept as a joke, but when the idea began getting publicity, orders rolled in. She started selling the dolls online in 1998, but halted production in 2006, putting the company on hold to concentrate on her studies and other projects. Email requests kept pouring in over the years, so this December, she decided to begin selling the dolls again in small batches.
Only Hearts Club dolls, a California-based toy line that started in 2004, marketed its dolls as delivering “a positive, wholesome and age-appropriate message to children.” In other words, they look like little girls, not like adult women. No boobs, no makeup, and a slightly more reasonable body type. Unfortunately, this apparently wasn’t a money-making proposition. The online store is “offline for maintenance,” and the company hasn’t posted to its Facebook and Twitter accounts since 2011. Emails to the company went unanswered.
Mixis, founded in 2005 in Canada, is a line of mixed-race dolls designed to represent a variety of ethnicities and cultures. Mixis dolls “better reflect the reality of a growing number of children sharing two or more distinct racial backgrounds,” according to founder Debbie Goodland. One is Latina and Jewish. One is Black, Native American, and Japanese. Each, the company says in a press summary, has “a naturally proportioned body.” Barbie may come in a few different colors, but the default is super Caucasian–pale, blonde, and blue-eyed. But inclusivity comes with a higher price tag: first editions of Mixis dolls retail for $59.99, whereas many Barbies sell for less than $20.
The Tonner Doll Company, which designs dolls for adult collectors, came out with a likeness of plus-sized supermodel Emme in 2005. Based on the real model’s proportions, the doll looks like a completely average woman, as far as size goes. She wasn’t exactly designed to be played with, but any sort of doll marketed as plus-sized is a rarity. According to a customer service representative of the company, the doll “is long gone from license and production.”
Enter Nickolay Lamm. Frustrated by the lack of options for kids who want to play with dolls that look like healthy human beings and not an “unapologetic” alien, Lamm is launching a crowdfunding site to make his own line of dolls, based on his “Normal Barbie” project. His creation, Lammily (yes, he named it after himself), is a 10.7-inch doll with an athletic build, minimal makeup, and clothes that look more suited to running around in the park than strutting down the runway.
“I just tried to make it look like if you blew this doll up, she’d be a healthy, happy girl,” Lamm told Co.Design. In a world where Barbie is still a huge part of the toy market (sales are declining, but estimates last year put the doll’s annual sales at $1.3 billion), that’s not an easy sell. “The option of a healthy, realistically proportioned doll is simply not available,” Lamm says–especially not at the same price range, around $20.
In Lamm’s original “Normal Barbie” project, the doll looked like a shorter, squatter version of Barbie, but the redesigned Lammily bears little resemblance to Mattel’s doll. And that’s not just so Lamm can save himself a legal battle. He wants to eventually include other races and body types, but for now, he wanted to at least make sure the first doll was somewhat inclusive. “You can’t say she’s Caucasian; she may be Latina,” he asserts. “I made it ambiguous on purpose.” That said, it’s not a product without flaws. Her tagline, “average is beautiful,” imposes an aesthetic standard of beauty that’s healthier than Barbie’s insane proportions, but it’s still imposing a standard. And as one Co.Design staffer commented, her vibe is distinctly mom-like. Polo shirts do not a wild, imaginative adventure make.
Everyone seems to want something different out of a doll, which makes the proposition of creating one alternative to a widely controversial design like Barbie’s daunting. Some say she needs to look more like a girl, and less like a woman. Others point out that girls want to play at adulthood–though Feral Cheryl may be alone in the doll world with her pubic hair. We certainly need more dolls that aren’t white, and that have bodies that don’t warp girls’ body image, but it’s a difficult proposition for a small company to make a doll that every girl on Earth can identify with.
Can more inclusive dolls permeate the toy market like the cultural powerhouse that is Barbie, or will Mattel’s blonde supermodel doll always feel like the default? It’s hard to say, but it doesn’t hurt Lamm’s chances that he’s an expert at creating viral content. Six hours after its launch, his crowdfunding site had raised more than $14,400. Hundreds of people have pre-ordered Lammily. One designer with a crowdfunding campaign for 5,000 dolls won’t be overtaking the billion dollar industry of producing America’s favorite doll anytime soon, but hey, at least he’s trying something a little different.
*An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to Lee Duncan as “he.” She is a woman.