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A-Z of Drugs


'B' is for the Barbie Doll drug

Neil Wilson
Neil Wilson

When Ruth Handler noticed her daughter and friends playing with paper dolls she observed the dolls were no longer viewed as babies. The children gave them adult names and adult roles. This observation formed the germ of an idea that transformed the toy maker Mattel into a multi-billion dollar business empire that is still going strong today. Her husband, who was the co-founder of Mattel, was initially sceptical, but was convinced enough to launch the first ever Barbie doll (real name : Barbara Millicent Roberts!) in 1959. The first ‘Ken’ followed in 1961 (named after their own son) and was followed a bewildering array of Barbie variations including Black, Hispanic and Oriental dolls with Barbie herself ending up in over 130 different careers. These range from the very 1960’s ambition to be an astronaut, to the perhaps less challenging roles of a cheerleader in the 1970’s and a McDonald’s cashier in the 80’s. Times change and Barbie has recently been spotted as a computer engineer and a vet.

Over the years the manufacturer has received some criticism for the portrayal of Barbie and Ken as the ‘perfect couple’, and thus promoting in young girls a sense of materialism and an unrealistic attitude towards their own body image. If Barbie was a ‘real’ woman then she would be five foot nine (175 cm), weigh just under 8 stone (51kg). Her measurements when scaled up would be 36-18-33 resulting in a BMI of 16.3. Such a BMI could lead to a diagnosis of moderate anorexia. Her mental agility has also been questioned by some who noted that the ‘Teen talking Barbie’ of 1992 uttered such uplifting phrases as “Math class is tough” and “I love shopping”.

Whilst many girls simply grow out of their ‘Barbie phase’ and leave her in the toy cupboard to be forgotten about, others turn on theirs and end up decapitating or microwaving them. Perhaps this is a sign of rejecting their past, as a University of Bath study suggested in 2005. For others it becomes a life-long obsession and ‘Barbie doll syndrome’ takes over their adult life. The drive to attain that certain look brings us to what has been dubbed the ‘Barbie doll drug’. Melanotan and its successor Melanotan II are powders that claim to provide a deep skin tone or tanned look. (We will refer to then simply as ‘Melantan in this article). Injecting the solution, once mixed with water, allows the peptide to stimulate the body’s own pigmentary mechanism without the need to expose the skin to harmful levels of UV radiation. Some researchers say the particular peptide involved could be up to 1,000 times stronger that than a naturally occurring one.

Melanotan was first synthesized at the University of Arizona. This led to clinical trials for its possible use in a range of serious skin conditions. Trails were abandoned at an early stage when the side effects became apparent. Quite apart from the dangers associated with any needle injection these effects have included nausea, vomiting, palpitations, aching limbs and panic attacks. Researchers at Liverpool John Moores University suggest Melanotan could also damage both the immune and cardiovascular systems. Moles have also been reported to have darkened and increased in size over a short period of time, a recognized early warning sign of skin cancer. In addition the darker skin tone resulting from Melanotan use may make the work of dermatologists harder as they try to diagnose skin problems.

Whilst we have concentrated in this article on the use of Melanotan by women, some men have also sought out the drug to help them achieve the ‘Bronzed Adonis’ look. Bodybuilders in particular have utilised it when readying themselves for competitions. The earlier form of the product was also said to cause the side-effect of priapism is some users (or more colloquially ‘having a permanent stiffy’), whilst the newerform is associated with just the opposite: erectile dysfunction. It’s not a problem that would have been of concern for Barbie’s partner Ken as he appears to lack the basic necessary equipment!

Despite these problems the desire for the perfect body allied to claims that Melanotan also increases sexual appetite but suppresses the desire for food has driven sales around the world.

It has sold well both through internet sites who offer it around the world and ‘under the counter’ by various unscrupulous vendors. In one example the HPRA (Health Products Regulatory Authority) which oversees compliance with laws on medicinal products in Ireland were alerted to advertisements for Melanotan on social media platforms. At 4000 euro per charge the Dublin mother involved was issued with a fine of 20,000 euro to pay although she escaped a potential 12 months in prison.

As Melanotan is no longer being manufactured legally anywhere in the world such sales must either be of old stock or counterfeit in nature. One Irish website was contacted to enquire where they obtained their product from, but no reply was forthcoming. Their lack of a phone number or business address on their site were further ‘red flags’ as to the nature of their business dealings.

Whatever the risks that natural sunlight and the use of UV sun beds may hold it certainly seems a safer bet than trying to attain so-called ‘good looks’ via injecting from a vial. When all the risks are taken into account its surprising that people still seek out Melanotan for use, but they may just be persuaded by ex-users themselves who point to the final look that is achieved. This may fall somewhat short of the ideal that is being sought. As one user reported online after using Melanotan : “You start off looking like a St.Tropez beach babe and end up like an Ooompa-Loompa”.

This article was written by Neil Wilson, Education support Worker with the WRDATF.

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organization, committee or other group or individual.

'A' is for Amphetamines
'C' is for Cannabis