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.