By Katie Sterling
Barbie has had, and still has, its fair number of controversies. Perhaps the biggest of them all, no pun intended, was the inclusion of breasts on a doll that millions of little girls would play with. Mothers fought back at the inappropriateness of it and Barbie creator Ruth Handler stood staunchly by her decision. Little did women know that Handler’s plastic creation would play a pivotal role for cancer patients.
Handler herself was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1970 when she was the president of Mattel, Barbie’s creator company. After undergoing a mastectomy, Handler came to the stark realization that many of the tools women were using to recreate their breast shape (using sock stuffing, cotton filler attached to their chest, etc.) were not only not working, but leaving women more depressed. After leaving the Mattel brand in 1974 following fraud allegations, Handler fixated on her next project: creating the first-of-its-kind breast prosthetic for women.
In 1976, the Nearly Me liquid silicone prosthetics hit the market in 70 different size and price options, with customized left and right breasts. Not only did Handler’s invention pave the way for more realistic and comfortable options for women who had undergone mastectomies, it offered women a boost of self-esteem. In just four years, sales had exceeded $1 million and Handler eventually sold the company 11 years later to Kimberly-Clark.
“When I conceived Barbie, I believed it was important to a little girl’s self-esteem to play with a doll that has breasts,” Handler once said, per The New York Times. “Now I find it even more important to return that self-esteem to women who have lost theirs.”
Handler often found herself advocating for taboo issues, but with her never-ending determination and honesty, she has created a legacy not only in the doll world, but also in the field of breast cancer care. While not all agreed with her invention of Barbie, you can’t deny the fact that Handler knew breast.