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Barbie sparks debate with Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue

Mattel's (MAT) Barbie has held all sorts of jobs, from her beach-loving Malibu phase to a camo-clad paratrooper, but her most famous role of all might be that of lightening rod. 

The latest controversy? The blonde doll will be featured in next week's Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue, with Mattel citing the spread as an opportunity for the doll to be "unapologetic" about her body and her looks.  

Sports Illustrated to feature Barbie 01:40
Barbie is no stranger to sharp comments about her slim figure, with critics noting that a real woman with similar proportions would have a waist several inches thinner than her head. And Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit issue is also a frequent target of complaints that it adds to unforgiving expectations for women. 

"People generally comment that her shape is unrealistic," Tanya Stone, the author of "The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie," wrote in an email. "And they aren't wrong about that. Barbie was created to be a teeny-tiny mannequin. How many mannequins have you seen that have realistic body shapes?"

But some are citing the mismatch between a child's toy and a magazine issue geared to adult men.  

The swimsuit issue "exemplifies what many people in the world consider 'sexy,'" writes Eve Vawter at Mommyish. "Which is why an 11.5 inch tall plastic toy that a lot of our young daughters (and sons) play with has no business being alongside actual human women, many of who have gone to extreme measures to attain a standard of beauty that many of us will never be able to."

Mattel didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Mattel seems to be positioning the swimsuit spread, which will feature Barbie in the doll's rather demure black-and-white swimsuit from its 1959 introduction, as a backlash against that criticism. The swimsuit issue will allow "Barbie and her fellow legends an opportunity to own who they are," a spokeswoman told Advertising Age. 

But Mattel has a weightier issue on its hands: Whether Barbie's inclusion in SI's Swimsuit issue actually inspires any parents to buy one of the dolls. After all, the pairing seems, well, a little off when it comes to targeting the right demographic. Sports Illustrated is mostly read by young men, probably not the core demographic in the market for a child's toy.

There's a lot at stake for Mattel. Along with toting her plastic accessories, Barbie is also burdened with carrying the toy maker's fortunes. Unfortunately, sales have been in free fall, with Barbie sales slipping by 13 percent during the holiday quarter last year. 

For the biggest Barbie fan club -- children -- the entire brouhaha over her figure and the Swimsuit issue probably won't matter. 

"One of the things I did for my book, 'The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie,' was collect anecdotes and memories from hundreds of people of all ages about Barbie," she said. "Almost across the board, it was generally adults who focused most heavily on the dimensions of the doll's body."

In the end, Stone wrote, what ever you think of Barbie, she's "simply a plastic doll upon which we impose our own issues, good and bad."

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