This Isn’t One of Those Barbie Ferreira Profiles That’s Just a Story About “Body Positivity”
Because that’s not progress—it’s played out. Just ask Barbie.
- Oct 1, 2020
Okay, so I really don’t want to make this a story about Barbie Ferreira’s body. About how she is “soft, fleshy, bountiful” (L.A. Times, September 2020) and has “learned to embrace her curves” (Daily Mail, the day after this photo shoot). About what it’s like to “be whittled down to your most marketable, tokenized parts” (Them., September 2019) or whether “the term ‘plus-size model’—is that something you are okay with?” (W, a hundred years ago, in March 2016).
And yet here I am, using the opening lines of the 23-year-old’s first major magazine cover story to talk about her body.
Because here’s the thing: It’s all a fucking trap. The pointing out, the celebrating, the implicit messaging: This not-thin woman is thriving! Can you believe it?! Yes, it is important to see someone like Barbie. To have her body pointed out and celebrated. To message to other women—especially women who, like me, look more like Barbie than not—that, Oh, shit, yeah, you can thrive too. Just watching Barbie exist does something (not everything but something) to counteract the years of hiding your upper arms, of spending your allowance on diet pills, of standing in the background of group pics doing that thing where you stick out your head like E.T. so that, if you’re lucky, you’ll look just a little bit smaller.
Barbie gets this too. She knows that her body’s mere existence in Hollywood is a balm. How relieving, how energy-shifting, how so-good-it’s-almost-numbing it is to see someone you can relate to in an ad, on TV, in a movie. But that doesn’t mean it’s fair. It doesn’t make it okay that even though she’d really like to Finally Move On to something else—her ambitions, maybe…her talent, her actual work—she has to keep talking about her body. Which means I do too, at least for some of this story.
But anyway, here’s something that has zero to do with it: Barbie’s top-billing role in this fall’s Unpregnant. It’s a road-trip buddy comedy…about abortion. And honestly, it’s great. Warm and fuzzy and legit really funny. Also real. “Normalizing abortion is what we have to do,” Barbie says matter-of-factly, under the glow of string lights in her L.A. kitchen during our midday Zoom. “Society puts this pressure on people who are getting abortions, that they should feel a lot of guilt and shame and really emotional about it. Most people are just relieved.”
Barbie plays Bailey, quirky high school loner and ex–best friend of Veronica (played by Haley Lu Richardson), the Insta-perfect popular senior. They reconnect when Veronica realizes she’s pregnant and needs to travel across several states for an abortion. Veronica’s crew is too judgy, her parents too religious, to ask for help, and Bailey has a car.
I know what you’re thinking, and no, it’s not one of those roles—the
one-dimensional character whose insecurities are used for laughs or to affirm the pretty lead. Bailey is complex, with her own full backstory and plotline. And most important: “My character was not based on her body whatsoever,” says Barbie. The role of Bailey didn’t include a body type—neither the fanciful kind (“fluffy”) nor the literal kind (“overweight, loud, and sassy”), both of which Barbie has seen written into character descriptions. Anyone, in theory, could be Bailey. “It was really great not to talk about—or act out—my body for once,” she adds.
Especially since, for Barbie, it’s always been about acting, even before she became a full-time model at age 18. Specifically a “plus-size” model, not that the label was all that authentic. As a size 10, she’d have to bring padding to photo shoots to fit into the clothes she was asked to model for Adidas, H&M, Target, Missguided, ASOS, and other brand campaigns with “plus-size” lines.
When she gained weight and hit size 14, “people were telling me to lose weight—are you kidding?” she remembers, her hands punctuating each exasperated word. “The whole time, I’d been talking about being yourself and no one was listening. I understood, at that moment, that even if I was screaming from the mountaintops, it was only used for marketing.”
Still, she kept screaming, and her outspokenness—especially in interviews with fashion publications—about the industry’s treatment of non-tiny bodies catapulted her into a different kind of spotlight. She was one of Time’s “most influential teens” of 2016 and became a front woman for the body-positivity movement. That influence? Still there. Earlier this year, she signed on to be the first-ever face of Becca Cosmetics—on her own terms, tyvm. “I told them: I’m not interested in a beauty contract or beauty company that’s not going to be catering to people other than white, cis, straight folks,” she recalls, her brows furrowing in a way that says, Hi, hello, don’t you get how obvious this is? “That’s not what I’m interested in because I don’t think that’s what beauty is. In fact, I want to see less of that. It’s already taking up so much space in the world. Why don’t we try something new?”
That just might have been the moment when those paying attention woke up—to see that while much of Barbie’s career had been about her body and that, okay, her body would probably still play into future chapters, it would no longer be THE thing. There was actually already so much else going on: the *real* stuff that makes her so electric. Like her…how do I put this…charm, maybe, if “charm” didn’t sound like something your grandmother would say. Charisma? Feels stuffy too. It’s whatever you’d call what she’s wearing today, which is basically the embodiment of typing “indie girl aesthetic” into the Pinterest search bar: an oversize black T-shirt with a cigarette-smoking Frankenstein on the front layered over washed-out-floral Gaultier long sleeves; a messy-but-not-messy topknot; a silver safety-pin necklace; one silver half-moon earring dangling from her left ear. She’s dressed for Zoom, which means I wasn’t supposed to see her bottom half, but when she moves to sit on the couch, there they are: Team Ravenclaw basketball shorts. (Also offscreen: a new tattoo. “It’s a spiral on my butt,” she says nonchalantly. “A spiral for my quarantine spiral.” Her girlfriend, musician Elle Puckett, did it with the at-home stick-and-poke kit Barbie gifted Elle for her birthday.)
It all points to a chill-girl vibe, even though she admittedly can’t do anything in a chill way. “I either do it too much or I don’t do it at all,” she confesses, before launching into details about her casual Animal Crossing addiction. “I had to give myself deadlines because I’d be so caught up that it would be, like, 4 a.m. It’s ridiculous that I even spent this much time on this game. Because you have to do every single little thing by hand. By hand, I mean by Nintendo Switch. Here’s a little waterfall area….”
Being just a tad obsessive and dealing with a lot of anxiety is sort of in her DNA (which, if you can’t relate, I don’t believe you). “As an elder Gen Z, we’ve gotten our fair share of bad times,” says Barbie. “I mean, my first day of kindergarten was 9/11. We were the guinea pigs of the internet—you’re 11, and the darkness of the entire world is just packed into your computer and you’re scrolling through it.” Growing up, she was on everything: Tumblr, LiveJournal, Neopets, RuneScape, Xanga. “That had to do something to my brain,” she continues. “I mean, I got crippling anxiety. A lot of depression issues, eating issues, paranoias, and just weird things that I’m one thousand percent certain are from the internet. I don’t know if we’re designed to do that…to chat online with strangers when you’re 9. God knows who I was talking to.”
Then there’s her family backstory, the sort of familiar, aspirational American dream that up until recently still felt like a real possibility. Barbie was raised by her Brazilian single mother, with an aunt and grandma playing backup childcare while her mom, now a private chef, balanced culinary school and a grueling restaurant job. “It was hard,” Barbie says, “but Grandma was there, filling my brain with made-up stories.”
“She just embellishes things,” shoots back Barbie’s mom, Janaina, who’s just FaceTimed into our Zoom.
“Mom, Grandma used to say that she had brunch with Gisele Bündchen,” Barbie responds.
When Barbie first left New York to move to L.A., Janaina would FaceTime her twice a day just to say hi—and to make sure Barbie was still alive. “If I didn’t answer, she was going to call me back six times,” Barbie laughs. “Yes, Mom, I love talking to you, but I’m going to forget to call you back, and it doesn’t mean I’m dead.” It’s a cultural difference, Barbie explains, a first-generation-American-kid thing that I (and my missed-call log) know all too well: Our parents just don’t get why we’re not picking up the phone all the time or living at home or coming over for dinner every single night. Like when her mom visits and Barbie offers to put her up at a nice hotel or Airbnb but Janaina cries because she wants to stay with Barbie, even if that means sleeping on the couch.
Right now, they haven’t seen each other since Christmas, the longest they’ve ever been apart. “I like to believe that I’m a friend of yours,” Janaina says. “And I know when things are serious, for the good or for the bad, I’m the first person you talk to.” Yes, the fantasy of actually being friends with your mom seems real for them. I can feel it three screens removed. Even when Barbie shows off the recipe-blog-esque stuffed peppers she’s been cooking during our interview and her mom replies that she doesn’t like stuffed peppers; she prefers stuffed zucchini.
And then there’s this, the simplest but most urgent reason you can’t look away from Barbie: her innate talent. “I was a very, dare I say, empathic kid,” she says, “and maybe, dare I say, extremely emotional.” Acting was the only thing that got her out of those feels. She did the drama thing, and after school, she’d rehearse for plays with the local Boys & Girls Club, dragging her grandma to auditions “even though my grandma didn’t speak English, didn’t know where she was.”
At age 21, Barbie auditioned for the role of Euphoria’s Kat Hernandez, like, 10 times before it was down to her and one other actress. “I have never in my life been more anxious,” she says. “I was literally exploding. I couldn’t even move most of the day because I was just like, I need this. If nothing else, give me this, give me this and that’s it.”
She got the call—technically, three missed calls from her agent, her manager, and the casting director—while in therapy. “I was like, ‘Carol, Imma have to answer this,’” Barbie says with a laugh. “She’s like, ‘I’ll be here for you regardless of the decision.’ And I’m like, I love Carol.”
If you’ve watched the show (and I know you have), you get why she was the one cast. Barbie never looks like she’s trying. All the grit, the work, the overthinking required to bring a complicated character like Kat to life is both obvious and not-at-all in her performance.
She probably couldn’t have pulled off any of that if she weren’t grounded in such realism. In a media-trained world of evasive answers and people-pleasing, her authenticity is a word better than “refreshing.” Like how point-blank she is about her worries that opportunities like Euphoria and Unpregnant, for her or for anyone who isn’t the traditional Hollywood body type, won’t be around forever. (Yeah, sorry, back to body stuff, just for a second.) “That it’s not going to be ‘trendy’ anymore,” she says. “That brands are still going to find people who are the thinnest version possible of something.”
Or like how she talks about her most top-of-mind worry this year: the election. It scares the shit out of Barbie (her words), and it should scare the shit out of everyone enough to go vote (again, her words). “In the years since Trump was elected, I’ve noticed how popular very, very hateful beliefs are,” Barbie says, looking up at the ceiling, choosing her words carefully. “It’s a disservice to oneself to think that everyone thinks the way you do. It’s more apparent now than ever in my life that I am living in a different world than a lot of people.”
“We think we’re the greatest country, we think we’re perfect, we think we’re the land of the free, but inherently, we’re not,” she continues. “We’re disillusioned about the country. I think that’s where Gen Z gets a lot of the angst and the sadness and the mental neuroses. We still haven’t reckoned with this.” (That might explain the Juul she keeps reflexively inhaling from. She did quit, by the way—she even publicly announced on Instagram that she was quitting alongside her Euphoria costar Hunter Schafer, but “now I’m back,” she says. “It’s an addiction that I am working on. I am not a perfect person.”)
Right now, like so many of us, Barbie’s taking solace in her friends, especially when it comes to facing those hateful beliefs or the personal attacks they breed. Her bestie, the actress Rowan Blanchard, says, “So many people feel like they can speak on everybody’s life. But I love to remind Barbie, ‘You’re fucking awesome, dude. You’re amazing. You’re so talented. You’re so smart. You’re so beautiful.’ You need somebody to be your mirror sometimes, you know?”
That’s it, that’s Barbie: a mirror. Our mirror, our solace. Bearing witness to her getting asked about, judged on, and talked about in terms of only her physical form triggers something inside of us. Here come all of our own lingering fears and discomforts that are right below the surface. The fear of not being considered worthy enough, the discomfort of not feeling wanted enough. The ones that never really go away. But to see Barbie say fuck that—to see her push through it, to take up as much space as she wants…it’s proof that the only shit that has to matter is the shit we allow to matter. And it’s relief you never expected, not because you didn’t know you needed it. But because you never thought you’d get it.
Fashion direction by Cassie Anderson. Styled by Chris Horan. Hair by Ken Paves using STYLD by Ken Paves. Makeup by Kali Kennedy at Forward Artists using Becca Cosmetics. Manicure by Queenie Nguyen at Nailing Hollywood for MiniLuxe. Props by Danielle Von Braun for Art Department.
On Barbie: T-shirt look: Vintage Jean Paul Gaultier top, Pechuga Vintage; Lisa Says Gah T-shirt; PH5 shorts; Oma the Label earrings; Ariana Boussard-Reifel ring. Cover look: PH5 top and skirt; LedaMadera earrings; ArianaBoussard-Reifel ring. Champagne look: Vivienne Westwood custom top, Pechuga Vintage; Story Mfg. pants; White/Space Jewelry earrings. Sunset look: Hervé Léger dress; Cled earrings. Beach chair look: Mugler dress; Ariana Boussard-Reifel ring. Close-up look: Schiaparelli earrings; Miaou corset.Jen Ortiz Deputy Editor, Cosmopolitan As deputy editor, Jen oversees Cosmopolitan's daily digital editorial operations, editing and writing features, essays, news, and other content, in addition to editing the magazine's cover stories, astrology pages, and more.
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