The irony of Barbie inventor Ruth Handler’s life was that she gave the world a doll with breasts, and lost her own to breast cancer. But in true Barbie spirit, she was unstoppable – finding an opportunity in adversity. Decades after launching Barbie, she introduced a breast prosthesis manufacturing company. It was her way to fill a physical and emotional void for women who lost their sense of femininity when they lost their breast(s) to cancer.
“Somehow, my life has revolved around breasts… Clearly, by accident,” Ruth Handler quipped during a televised interview to CBS News. On a more serious note, she admitted, “When I lost my breasts, I felt I lost my feminity.”
The fact that this was not just her story, became the seed for her next big business idea after her run at American toy manufacturing company Mattel came to an end.
But wait, why are we talking about Ruth Handler?
Greta Gerwig’s ‘Barbie’, the first live-action film based on the world-famous dolls, has increased curiosity about the trailblazer’s life. A poignant scene towards the end of the movie sees Rhea Perlman as the ghost of the businesswoman who gave the world the beloved Barbie.
Ruth Handler was one of the three brains – besides her husband Elliot and their friend Harold Matson – behind American toy manufacturing conglomerate Mattel that changed the concept of dolls worldwide. According to the official Mattel website, Barbie was born after Ruth Handler was inspired by watching her daughter Barbara play with paper dolls. She saw an opportunity to launch a new grown-up 3D doll that gave the message that women can be anything when they grow up!
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The unrealistically proportioned structures of slim and blonde ‘stereotypical’ Barbie dolls was found to be negative on young, impressionable minds. In the 1980s, Barbie started to be more inclusive and diverse with skin colour, body size and health conditions. The latest was a Barbie with Down Syndrome. But there had been rampant studies about how young girls developed body image issues and eating disorders due to the seemingly perfect world of Barbie.
The founder differed. “Many women have a problem with their bodies as they grow old. I cannot believe that the doll causes that,” she set the record straight.
Eyebrows were raised for introducing children to a doll with breasts. However, in the Barbie’s Mom’s opinion, if a girl was role playing a 16 or 17 year old, “it was a little stupid to play with a doll that had a flat chest… So I gave it beautiful breasts!”. On another occasion, when Handler was asked why it was important for her that Barbie doll must have breasts, she said, “The whole idea was that a little girl could have dreams of growing up, and every grown up that she saw had breasts!”
Ruth Handler was reportedly diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent mastectomy in 1970. It was the same decade when she resigned from Mattel following a financial scandal, and found her new calling in supporting breast cancer survivors – in her own unique way!
Disappointed by the lack of quality breast prosthesis during the 1970s, she founded Ruthton Corp and launched Nearly Me, a line of prosthetic breasts customised for women who had either lost one or both breasts during cancer treatment. The brand was aptly named for women to almost feel like themselves. Prosthetics weren’t new to the world at that time, but as Handler once put it, “They were designed by men, who didn’t have to wear the damn things!”
A breast prosthesis is simply an artificial breast shape made from materials such as silicone or foam. These can easily fit into post-mastectomy bras, allowing women to look “nearly” as real as they did pre-surgery.
Breast prosthesis is an essential part in post-mastectomy life, says Dr Garvit Chitkara, Senior Consultant, Breast Surgical Oncology and Oncoplastic Surgery, Max Nanavati Hospital, Ville Parle, Mumbai.
“Not only does it allow the patient to go out into the society with full confidence without feeling any less of a lady, but it also has implications on the ergonomics of the body,” he explains.
The lack of one breast can add weight around the neck, causing persistent pain. Hence, it is important for a patient to use a weight-matched prosthesis while being involved in daily activities.
All artificial breasts were used interchangeably for the right or left side until Handler’s Nearly Me changed the narrative. With time, she travelled widely demonstrating the breast prosthesis with her humour intact – asking people to even touch and guess which one was real!
For Ruth Handler, the idea behind both Barbie and Breasts, was one: to empower women.
“When I conceived Barbie, I believed it was important to a little girl’s self-esteem to play with a doll that has breasts. Now I find it even more important to return that self-esteem to women who have lost theirs,” a 1995 New York Times article quoted her.
Women who undergo body-altering surgeries such as mastectomies can experience significant discomfort and distress due to the changes they experience. It can be challenging to adjust to a new sense of being and develop comfort with an unfamiliar physical state.
UK-based Dr Liz O’Riordan, a breast surgeon who has survived the disease twice herself, says giving women their body shape back with breast prosthesis has had a “massive impact” globally.
“When you have had one or both breasts removed, it can be very hard to feel confident to go out in public. Many clothes are no longer suitable without a cleavage. People stare when they see you in a swimming costume. Giving the women the option of wearing a realistic prosthesis helps women cope emotionally with the psychological side effects of having a mastectomy,” the medical expert tells Health Shots.
As someone who has seen both sides of the spectrum as a surgeon and survivor, says women need safe, evidence-based information that they can trust.
“It’s not just about helping them understand the treatment they will have. We need to help women life a full life afterwards, tell them how to cope with the physical and mental side effects of treatment and what to look out for in the future. We also need to educate every cancer patient about the three simple things they can do to reduce their risk of recurrence – drinking less than 5 units a week, staying at a healthy weight and exercising (aerobic and resistance training) five times a week.”
Changes caused by an illness such as breast cancer can impact mental health adversely, says New Delhi-based senior clinical psychologist Dr Kamna Chhibber.
“It can affect moods, lead to negative thinking, make a person doubtful about their self, create body image-related issues, and compromise the adjustment and adaptation process. Together, these can lead a person’s functioning to get impacted in their personal and professional spaces. Working to ameliorate the impact of such changes can involve taking additional medical support with prosthetics, which can help a woman feel more wholesome and as she was physically before,” adds the expert.
But is that enough? Dr Chhibber says the emotional and psychological impact of the changes would still need to be worked through and the adaptation process facilitated, by bringing in acceptance.
As per World Health Organization estimates, over 2 million women were diagnosed with breast cancer globally in 2020 itself. That made it the world’s most prevalent cancer. Many women die of breast cancer year on year, some fight it in early stages and some get to live their best life with one – or even two breast(s) – less.
But as Handler believes, “Losing the breast is not the end of the world.” She eventually became a champion for breast cancer awareness and early detection – a cause she continued working on even after she underwent her second mastectomy in 1989.
Ruth Handler died in 2002 following complications from a colon cancer surgery. Her life saw her ride the waves of success, failure and resurrection, while traversing through emotional terrains. After all, the real world was and continues to be far from Barbieland!