If These Dolls Could Talk: How Mannequins Are Changing the Way We Talk About Female Beauty

From plus sizes to pubic hair.

  • Share
  • Read Later

People don’t walk into department stores looking to mannequins for an accurate portrayal of the female form. The slim, smooth Barbie doll figures are so commonplace that their unrealistic physique hardly raises an eyebrow. And yet whenever mannequins deviate from their expected form, sometimes to resemble real women, the Twitter-sphere erupts in both positive and negative shock.

There are many instances of mannequins fueling important conversations about the beauty expectations of real, rather than plastic, women.

Pubic Hair

The most recent example was when display artists at a lower Manhattan American Apparel got in at 3 in the morning Thursday to give their sleek mannequins a surprising addition: pubic hair.

Cameron Diaz and the New York Times recently publicized the issue of changing our culture’s beauty standards regarding hairless women by bringing pubic hair out of the taboo. Even though it’s kind of hard to take a stunt by Dov Charney’s controversy seeking American Apparel, which revels in the sexualization of young women, as entirely sincere (the retailer did tweet “what do you think of our pubic hair PR crisis”), it did ignite an important conversation.

While many positively discussed a woman’s choice to go unshaven and waxed, the caricatural images often elicited vitriol. Daily Mail tweeted that the mannequins “have VERY unkempt bikini lines,”  and Media Bistro’s PR Newser bemoaned their “grooming issues.” Even though the mannequins’ merkin were exaggerated, there was extreme public backlash against women embracing a natural state. “Ugh im a woman and i think it is gross and unsanitary,” a commenter wrote in response to our coverage of the controversy.

This isn’t the first time that mannequins deviating from the expected form have launched a public discussion about female beauty norms.

Plus Sizes

Last year, Swedish retailer Åhléns made headlines for featuring plus-sized mannequins in its lingerie store:

The viral photos sparked a body image debate that was made up of expected fat shaming as well as praise for acknowledging real women’s bodies. There was also shock, however, as to why featuring a size 10 mannequin was even controversy-worthy. “Why is this such a big deal,” Refinery 29 asked. “…The fact that the installation of larger mannequins in a “regular” store is so controversial seems ridiculous.”

In December, British department store Debenhams decided to display plus sized mannequins (American size 14) next to its “normal” mannequins (American size 8) in its flagship store to reflect the size of its shoppers.

In 2007, Spain‘s Ministry of Health told Spanish companies that its mannequins had to be a size 6 or above.

But are plus-sized mannequins even properly representing the plus-sized clothing they sell? Size 16 model Alex LaRosa recently bashed plus-sized retailers for using curvy mannequins that still don’t properly represent its clientele and are often too small for most of the clothes being sold in the stores.

Of course, fat bashing “obese” mannequins is still a cultural norm. After visiting a J.C. Penney in 2009, Cintra Wilson wrote a Times piece that stated:

It has the most obese mannequins I have ever seen. They probably need special insulin-based epoxy injections just to make their limbs stay on. It’s like a headless wax museum devoted entirely to the cast of “Roseanne.”


Of course, we are primarily used to seeing excessively svelte, if not anatomically impossible, mannequins.

“Clothes look better on tall, thin, abnormal bodies,” Bloomingdale’s visual director Roya Sullivan told the Chicago Tribune in a 2007 interview, explaining why many mannequins are six inches taller and six sizes smaller than average women. 

And thus it isn’t uncommon to see sickly female mannequins with visible spines or J.C. Penney figures with legs the size of shoppers’ arms.

Although extreme cases have attracted backlash. Gap came under fire in 2011 for producing “anorexia-thin” mannequins unironically for its “always skinny” skinny jeans display. Even though the unhealthy messaging behind the mannequins was criticized, many looked to them for thinspiration:

This parallels debates in the fashion industry regarding undersized models. In recent years Milan, Madrid, and London all banned size zero models from their fashion weeks for being too thin.

Plastic Surgery

Venezuela thought it would reflect a new consumer base that it believed the fashion industry had largely ignored: Women with breast augmentation. A manufacturer told the Times, “The transformation has been both of the woman and of the mannequin.”

The Barbie-doll proportions caused the Guardian to question if, “Shop-window mannequins with enlarged breasts, tiny waists and unnaturally sculpted rears are catering for (and fueling) the national obsession with implants and plastic surgery.”


One of the most positive ways that retailers have manufactured mannequins to deviate from their normal form, however, is when a series of mannequins modeled after five disability activists were displayed in a Zurich storefront.

Because, as the campaign preached, “who is perfect?”