I didn’t like Barbie when I was a little girl — OK, to be honest, I hated her. I had no interest in styling Barbie’s hair or finding the perfect dress for her to wear. And my sister’s Barbie styling head, which was just a big Barbie head that she put makeup on, creeped me the hell out. So to find myself talking Barbies with Kim Culmone, vice president of Barbie design at Mattel, felt somewhat odd, even though I’d initiated the call.
I really wanted to talk to Culmone after watching Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie, a documentary that is now airing on Hulu. Culmone is a central figure in the film, and I had no idea I would have so much in common with someone who is so close to Barbie and plays such an instrumental role in the doll’s life. (I know Barbie isn’t a real person, but she is about as real as an inanimate object can be to lots of people.)
Directed by Oscar-nominated documentarian Andrea Nevins, the film charts the history of Barbie since the doll’s launch in 1959 and features commentary from feminists like Roxane Gay and Gloria Steinem. But most notably and remarkably, the movie follows Culmone as she leads a redesign of Barbie’s body, culminating in the introduction of three new body types — curvy, tall, and petite — to the brand’s Fashionista Barbie line, marking a long-called-for evolution in how the brand portrays women.
Culmone is part of a Mattel design team that has brought other needed changes to Barbie in recent years, introducing dolls with different skin tones and eye colors and facial sculpts. Barbie is starting to look like more of us, and it’s about time.
When she was a kid, Culmone, who is from New Orleans, loved playing with her Barbie dolls. An only child, she spent hours using her imagination to make up stories for her Barbies, who often played journalists and took a lot of vacations. “That is the key to Barbie. Barbie is a tool for storytelling, and we know that especially for girls,” says Culmone, noting that little boys play with Barbie, too. “Almost what you might call being a director of a scene is one of the primary patterns that girls play out with dolls. It’s deeply personal and can be an emotional process.”
In Tiny Shoulders, we get to the root of why Barbie became such a sensation in the toy world. Created by Mattel co-founder Ruth Handel, Barbie was the first adult doll to be mass-produced for kids. Prior to Barbie, little girls played mostly with baby dolls, and the emphasis was on learning how to feed, bathe, and care for babies. But Barbie was an adult and offered children the opportunity to envision the future they saw for themselves through their play with her, and that appeal has continued throughout the decades.
Culmone says playing with Barbie made her feel grown-up and in control. The doll also sparked her creativity. She was obsessed with perfecting Barbie’s environment. “I spent a lot of time setting up the Barbie Dreamhouse and setting up scenes and making things to fill in the gaps for the things that weren’t there, cutting out little pieces of paper and making tiny magazines for Barbie to put in a suitcase and take with her on a trip,” says Culmone, who, as an adult, still loves magazines and always has a stack next to her bed. She also stocks up on them at the airport when she travels and thinks lugging them on trips could be contributing to her back issues.
After studying interior design at Louisiana State University and textile design at Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles, Culmone began her career at Mattel as a temp in the textile department in 1998, and she worked in various areas of the company, including licensing, before taking on her current role.
She is a true believer in the Barbie brand and even wears a necklace with the Barbie logo on it most days. That said, Culmone understands why Barbie is both a beloved and controversial figure. For years, many criticized Barbie’s ridiculously unrealistic body — her proportions don’t exist in reality. And the criticism has intensified in recent years as the concept of body positivity has made its way into the public consciousness, mostly through the Internet and social media, as Andi Zeisler, co-founder of Bitch Media, points out in the film.
There is a scene in Tiny Shoulders in which Culmone acknowledges that the powers-that-be at Mattel resisted making substantive changes to Barbie’s physique for years and says that refusal to budge for so long gnawed at her. While in the midst of the intensive redesign process that finally gets underway, Culmone says, “It’s so important, and to me, we’re late. We should have done this a long time ago.”
“Like a lot of human beings, I grew up with my own body-image issues, and I absolutely know how it feels to stop doing things you like as a kid because you’re uncomfortable in your own body,” she tells me. “If a kid sees themselves in Barbie, specifically their own body type, and that builds their confidence, I couldn’t be happier.”
Beyond finding Culmone’s own body issues relatable, I was also surprised — and delighted — to learn that, like me, Culmone is married to a woman and has long been an activist in the fight for marriage equality. “I think it’s important for people to be visible at whatever comfort level they have,” she says of the decision to talk about her personal life in Tiny Shoulders. “The things that make us different in life and the challenges that we as a population had to secure marriage equality informed our lens in life. It has built an empathy in me for marginalized populations.” You can see that empathy in the diverse team Culmone has built and how hard she has worked to make all kinds of children see themselves in Barbie more clearly.
As a kid, part of the reason I resented Barbie so much was because I was judged for not being into the “girly” things — the makeup, the dresses, and the high heels — that made my sister love playing with her Barbie dolls. When I began reflecting on my history with Barbie after watching Tiny Shoulders and talking to Culmone, I realized that I was judging my sister for liking those girly things — sorry, Lisa! — as much as I was being judged by others for liking the things I liked. So much judging. Perhaps Mattel will be inspired to design a special Judgmental Barbie based on me.
At the same time, I think it’s wonderful that we now live in a world where Barbie is not so unrelentingly femme. In what has been the most monumental advancement in Barbie design to me, Culmone and her team created a Barbie with flat feet a few years ago, freeing the doll from the tyranny of always having to wear high heels. If Mattel sold a Barbie back in the day who could actually wear high-top sneakers, like I did when I was eight years old, you know what? I might have been a Barbie girl.
Christine Champagne is a New York City–based writer who has written for vanityfair.com, Variety, Fast Company, and other places. You can follow her on Twitter @itsthechampagne.