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Exalted Beauties: Venus of Willendorf vs. the Barbie Doll

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The Venus of Willendorf is known for her voluptuous figure, and is often regarded as an icon of fertility, health, and abundance. Barbie is known for her blonde hair, big blue eyes, and her size zero figure, she is often regarded as an iconic representation of beauty (The icon, n.d.). These two figures could not look more different yet they do have some things in common. Both are female, manmade, and both are inspirational in their own way, and are both distorted images of the female form, both representations of women are what the artist envisioned in his mind and not necessarily an actual likeness to the women of their time. Who are they?

Venus of Willendorf is a small statuette discovered in Austria in 1908, by Josef Szombathy. She is named after the site in Austria where she was unearthed; she is the first known human figurine and is considered an icon of prehistory. The statue dates back to the Paleolithic era between 24,000-22,000 BCE, where she was carved from oolitic limestone, she stands 11centimeters tall (Seshadri, 2012). She has been referred to as obese, with her large abdomen, wide hips, swollen thighs, and her pendulous breasts; the statuette has no face or feet, and small arms resting on her bosom. She either has her hair braided around the top of her head or is wearing a basket type hat which was popular at that time (Holloway, 2014). It is argued that she was not obese but actually pregnant, explaining her exaggerated figure (Kettlewell, n.d.).

Barbie debuted in 1959. She was created by a woman named Ruth Handler. Since at the time only baby dolls existed, Ruth wanted an adult doll for her daughter Barbara to play with. She noticed her daughter pretending that her paper dolls were grown up, getting married, and going off to work, so she decided to create an adult doll for her. Barbie is celebrated as the first adult doll for girls. Barbie’s full name is Barbie Millicent Roberts, and is from Wisconsin (Engin, 2013). She stands 11.5 inches tall, has blonde hair, blue eyes, a tiny waist, and long legs. This tall busty blonde is considered is an All-American icon, and has an extremely large global fan base. Barbie is sold by the toy company Mattel, and is one of the world’s most recognized toys (Engin, 2013). Exaggerated forms of the female body

Throughout history, we can see that artists have created statues or sculptures that lack realism in their work and tend to exaggerate their socially accepted features that they deem as beauty. Different cultures emphasize different body parts such as ears or forehead that other cultures may find unpleasant, or even grotesque. For example some tribes may use neck rings to lengthen the neck and lip plates to stretch the lip in the name of beauty, in some tribes the bigger the lip plate the more desirable a woman becomes (Dunia/People and culture, 2012).

Venus of Willendorf is an example of this exaggerated form of beauty, with emphasis on her sagging breasts, protruding abdomen, and genital area, and with de-emphasis on her arms and face, as well as her lack of feet, she is most likely a symbol of beauty rather than an actual depiction of the women of her time. According to Spivey (2004), “The people who made this statue lived in a harsh ice-age environment where features of fatness and fertility would have been highly desirable” (PBS.org). Perhaps in their harsh existence, women could not get pregnant or lost their children to miscarriages. The statue may then have been an idol for fertility and motherhood. However there are many theories that have been introduced including: Self portraits, Stone Age dolls, religious icons, and even pornographic imagery (Holloway, 2014).

Barbie is another exaggeration of the female form and beauty. She was made with impossible curves for a woman to achieve, although many have tried. She has a large bust, an extremely small waist, and long thin legs. According to Engin (2013), if Barbie were a real woman “her proportions would include a 99cm bust, a 46cm waist and 84cm hips”. (p. 21). It is said that in real life Barbie would only have room for half of a liver (Golgowski, 2013). In contrast to the Venus of Willendorf there is focus on Barbie’s face and hair, she has long blonde hair and big blue eyes, and is actually wearing eyeliner and eye shadow. Even though Barbie’s shape has slightly changed since the first doll, her proportions are now modestly more realistic, she still has an exaggerated and unrealistic shape (Moore, 1997).

However unrealistic she may be she is still our symbol of the ideal representation of female beauty. Barbie has been blamed for young girls becoming anorexic and causing other eating disorders in hopes of achieving the Barbie body. The impact of the Barbie doll on children in our society and their self image is real. According to McDonough, (n.d.), “Barbie has been held responsible for eating disorders and charged with offering girls a wholly unrealistic body image”. (p.1). Some mothers are refusing to buy Barbie dolls for their children because of her shape. 

Barbie and the Venus of Willendorf are both exaggerated forms of beauty and the ideal body type. I don’t look like Barbie OR the Venus of Willendorf, and I don’t think most women do either. Views on Appearance

The definition of beauty is ever changing. According to Paglia (2004), “Style is cyclic: all standards will eventually change”. There always has been and always will be fickle and profound changes in the standard of beauty. Throughout the centuries the representation of female beauty has fluctuated, but there are some guidelines that seem to follow a pattern. According to Paglia, (2004), “As a general rule, large, ample women have preferred status in agrarian or subsistence periods, while a thin, linear silhouette becomes fashionable for woman in urban or courtly societies”.(p. 4). This would explain the appearance of the Venus of Willendorf, being in a society with a harsh environment, and possibly struggling to survive, a woman with girth would be seen as someone who could bear a child, or of someone with means, this would be a preferred silhouette over a thin woman who would be viewed as frail and weak, or a sign of famine.

Barbie is a metropolitan girl that has held more than 80 careers that have spanned the fields of education, public service, medicine, and even politics (Engin, 2013). So culturally it is no surprise that in western society Barbie with her willowy physique would be the standard of beauty. If Barbie made an appearance in the Paleolithic period, she would probably be viewed as weak and undesirable, not anything like the strong, beautiful and successful woman she is to our society.

We know that levels of body-fat do play a part in fertility: women runners sometimes have trouble conceiving due to their low body weight (Paglia, 2004). If Barbie were a real woman she would most likely not be able to conceive, with her distorted proportions it seems that she barley has room for her internal organs.

Views on appearance are not just about physical features, it can go much deeper than that, a large plump woman is beautiful in a subsistence period because she represents hope and abundance, to them body fat is a beautiful site (Paglia, 2004). In a more urban setting a thin lean body may represent someone who is active and hardworking, where as a larger person may be viewed as lazy in a bustling city. It is true that beauty is in the “eye of the beholder”. Women depicted in art

It seems as though women have been the subject of art for centuries. Maybe because most artists were men and their experiences with women propelled them to depict women in their art. Women can be wives, mothers, queens, saints, angels, and demons. And since the beginning of humanity, women have been worshipped, adored, cherished, wooed, and admired. Women have also been defamed, condemned, and abused (Women of art, n.d.). So for all these reasons it is no wonder that artists chose women as their subjects, from cave art to oil paintings, to statues, women are a favorite subject for artists, most likely because they can evoke emotion in the artist by their personal experiences, or stories of women, or from their own fantasies.

So it is no wonder that the first known human figurine was of a woman. The Venus of Willendorf was most likely carved by a man: Spivey states that “the parts that mattered most had to do with successful reproduction – the breasts and pelvic girdle. Therefore, these parts were isolated and amplified by the artist’s brain” (PBS.org). Maybe he was imaging raising a family and having his blood lines live on, and the emotion brought him to carve the woman of his dreams, well nourished, with full bosoms to nourish a child. Maybe he was fantasizing about a woman he had seen, and there is no deeper meaning than him just wanting her. We will never know what the artist was thinking, but we do know that since the beginning of art till now women have remained a key theme.

Barbie too was created from an emotion that stemmed from female inspiration. Ruth Handler’s love for her daughter inspired her to create the world’s most famous doll; watching her daughter pretending to be grown up, and having her paper dolls go off to work motivated Ruth to design an adult doll so her daughter’s imagination could flourish (Engin, 2013). It seems as though artists from all genres, from dolls, to cartoons, to statues are influenced and inspired by women and the female form.

The Venus of Willendorf and the Barbie doll are both known for their extreme figures. Each is a depiction of the ideal woman of their times. Venus of Willendorf with her voluptuous figure is in stark contrast to Barbie’s svelte body and our version of beauty today. They are both exaggerated forms of the female body for different reasons, but what they have in common is that they both brought hope and imagination to their culture. Venus of Willendorf brought her vision of fertility, health, and hope for a better life, and the Barbie doll brought creative and imaginative play to children for over fifty years. Artists will always use women and the female form as their subjects, and some will be realistic and others will be exaggerated in one way or another, our goal is to see the beauty in their vision and appreciate it without overanalyzing it.


Dunia/People & Culture ( 2012, October, 23). Extreme body modification practices in the name of beauty: Neck rings and lip plates. Dunia. Retrieved
from: http://www.duniamagazine.com/2012/10/extreme-body-modification-practices-in-the-name-of-beauty-neck-rings-and-lip-plates/ Engin, H.B. ( 2013). Barbied Dreams, Barbied Lives: On our backs, in the attics of our memories, on the shelves. International Journal of Social Inquiry. 6(2): 18-37. Retrieved from: http://www.socialinquiry.org/articles/2.pdf History of women through art. (n.d.). Women’s International Center. Retrieved from: http://www.wic.org/artwork/idex_art.htm Holloway, A. (2014, April, 11). The Venus figurines of the European Paleolithic Era. Ancient Origins. Retrieved from: http://www.ancient-origins.net/ancient-places-europe/venus-figurines-european-paleolithic-era-001548 Kettlewell, J. (n.d.). The Venus of Willendorf: Rethinking classic themes in art history. Retrieved from: http://www.jameskettlewell.com/willendorf.html McDonough, Y. (n.d.). Barbie (Doll). The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/b/barbie_doll/index.html Moore, T. (1997, November, 18). Barbie doll to get more real/ smaller bust, wider waist, flatter feet—even her smile is changing. SFGATE. Retrieved from: http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Barbie-Doll-to-Get-More-Real-Smaller-bust-2795230.php Paglia, C. (2004, October, 1). The cruel mirror: body type and body image as reflected in art. Journal of the art Libraries Society of North America.23 (2):4-7. Retrieved from: http://lib.calpoly.edu/find-and-borrow/ Spivey, N. (2004). Venus of Willendorf: Exaggerated Beauty. How art made the world. Retrieved from: http://www.pbs.org/howartmadetheworld/episodes/human/venus/ The Icon. (n.d.). Retrieved from: http://people.southwestern.edu/~bednarb/su_netWorks/projects/henderson/icon.html

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