Artist Misuses CDC Mean Measurements; Internet Rejoices

Artist Misuses CDC Mean Measurements; Internet Rejoices

The Internet is on another of its feel-good binges after the release of artist Nikolay Lamm’s rendering of ‘normal’ Barbie (link above). The rendering is supposedly based on the CDC measurements for the average American 19 year-old female. Let’s start with the positive. “Normal Barbie” is undeniably more similar in appearance to a random 19 year-old white American female than Mattel’s Barbie is. Who knows how Lamm decided that his Barbie had reached the appropriate weight, unless he had some serious scientific input, but—butt—let’s assume he just took creative license, guessed, and placed fat into desirable areas and increased her muscle tone to achieve this. The result is beautiful! Yay for an ideal of beauty independent of the numbers society tells us to be hung up on! This does not mean, however, that the “average” 19 year-old female looks like this.

In browsing the CDC site, I have been unsuccessful in obtaining either mean bust and hip measurements for 19 year-old females, or weight, height, and waist measurements for 19 year-olds by race. (This is not to say they aren’t out there, but I gave up after a 20-minute search.) Below is what I found here:

  • 5’4″ is the mean height for 19 y/o females
  • 5′ 5″ is the mean height for non-Hispanic white females, ages 20-39
  • 150 lbs is the mean weight for 19 year-old females
  • 164.7 lbs is the mean weight for non-Hispanic white females, ages 20-39
  • 33.6″ is the mean waist size of 19 y/o females
  • 36″ is the mean waist size for non-Hispanic white females, ages 20-39

Obviously 20-39 is not an ideal age range for the sake of means for 19 year-olds by race, but it’s the closest I could find in my cursory search.

Problem #1: A collection of means does not a “normal”—or even a realwoman make.

Lamm’s use of CDC statistics in creating his model is, well, wrong. Waist size and weight should usually scale with height. If there are more 19 year-old females under 5’4” who are balanced out in the mean by some really kick-ass Amazons—or vice-versa, then the mean (as opposed to median) weight and waist size are unhelpful in picturing a “normal” woman. Given the problem of obesity in the U.S., it is entirely possible that there are a bunch of naturally thin, healthy 19 year-olds who are outweighed in a literal sense by their overweight counterparts, who inflate the mean. Or maybe Barbie has damaged the psyches of too many tall girls who should weigh in at more than 150 and now it’s them versus the short and large-breasted. Without a bust size, weight is almost entirely useless. Talk to a woman who’s had a breast reduction; she’ll tell you those puppies are not lightweight.

Lamm’s Barbie is strategically designed to look healthy and I applaud his efforts to show, I presume, that the CDC averages don’t have to mean shit about a woman’s beauty or fitness. But means are a tricky business in that most women aren’t so simple. I have very petite healthy friends whose waists are closer to actual Barbie’s, but whose hips or busts are far larger because genetics are funny like that. (No, I’m not friends with Nicki Minaj.) I’ve known women whose bodies bounce right back after pregnancy and those who struggle to shed the weight. We have, and should have, different standards (at least among non-Hollywood normals) for the health and beauty of middle aged women because age does change things. (Before you start, Internet, I’m not a terrible feminist for suggesting that some women/people are more beautiful than others. Beauty is a thing that we as a society have thoughts on, whether they’re fair or not, and age-appropriate standards can only help. That said, except for interpersonal attraction or a modeling career, perceived beauty shouldn’t be a defining factor in a woman’s life.)

Looking at the health stats behind her good looks, Normal Barbie’s measurements put her in about the 80th percentile for weight and BMI, but below the 50th percentile for stature. She’s actually just over the line for classification as “overweight” by the NIH. This is, of course, not a precise health profile by any means (again: boobs), but Normal Barbie is heavier than she should be, based on current medical convention.

Problem #2: Normal Barbie’s donk.

Or, to elaborate, the lack of hip measurements by race and relative to height, waist size, bust size, etc. (Let’s not pretend there’s no possibility of different means for different body parts among women of different races.) Estrogen makes things curvier, and curvy is beautiful on healthy women (like, I would venture to say, this one, in spite of her taste in swimwear), but let’s not kid ourselves about where Lamm stashed that extra weight. Without any mean(s) to back it up (ha), I have a hard time accepting that the “normal” 19 year-old hazards a diagnosis of “overweight” because she fills out her jeans so well.

Problem #3: Pretty much everything about our discussions of “health” in America…

Being overweight after consideration is given to bust size, muscle tone, and other factors, is not “healthy” as far as we’re aware. Maybe that extra 5 lbs doesn’t actually matter; I’m no doctor and the research is ongoing among those who are. But an extra 50 probably does. Please, Internet, stop calling people healthy or unhealthy based on what your commenters find aesthetically pleasing. “She looks healthy to me” is probably not valid—unless you know something I don’t—when the “she” in question is 300 lbs. I appreciate your efforts to avoid fat shaming—we all know it only makes emotional eaters struggle harder to lose weight—but there’s a line and it’s got nothing to do with your zipper, male commenters. A woman can technically maintain a healthy weight and still have it distribute in a way that signals a risk for heart disease. Or she can be aesthetically pleasing and medically underweight. Or she can have cottage cheesy legs and stretch marks because life and pregnancy and genetics do weird things to bodies, yet still be healthy, even if it doesn’t make your pants happy.

It’s okay to express your opinion that someone is beautiful if she’s medically overweight. But let’s not pretend that we’re being better feminists or humans or whatever because you said “looks healthy to me” and not “looks sexy to me.”

Problem #4: The doll argument—yeah, I’m going there.

So, for those of you just climbing out from under that rock, it turns out Barbie is a doll. There is plenty of research to show that dolls affect children’s perceptions of themselves and to allow them to do so in a negative manner is unequivocally bad. But you know who else is a doll? Ken. And G.I. Joe. And… every superhero ever… You won’t convince me that there are no little boys who think they have to grow up to be jacked like Wolverine or they’ve failed somehow at being masculine. Maybe I’ve been out of touch, but I’ve not seen any hullabaloo, Internet, about making boys’ dolls look more realistic. Are you assuming girls are more sensitive and that’s why Barbie matters more? Why does change.org want a girl Transformer (which is a rant for another day: Why you gotta assume robots have human gender?), but not scrawny superhero toys?

Thus concludes the more salient of my reactions to The Internet’s joy over Normal Barbie. Maybe I just feel left out because I am 5’10” and am proportionally unremarkable otherwise, so I could never play the head games involving weight, dress size, and measurements that my peers did because I’m at least half a foot taller than most. I’ve often had nurses underestimate my weight by 20+ lbs or insist on weighing me because they thought I must be wrong. I’ve had doctors look at a scale and tell me I must never gain anymore weight or the world will end. I’ve had male friends do that weird stuttering thing where they try to find the words to say “I don’t think you’re fat” after I’ve brought up my weight up in casual discussions about health. I’m not model thin (unless you count the Robyn Lawleys of the world, I guess), but I’m not overweight, either. I’ve had a more positive self-image than not over the years and was blessed with genetics that allow me to change things with a reasonable amount of effort when I’m feeling vain. I hope that the goal of all of The Internet’s feelings on positive body image is to create a world where more people are as confused as I am by discussions of body-related numbers out of context, but most days I feel that its actual goal is to justify its own weight struggles.

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