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Barbie evokes suffering in girls, scorn in teens and finally gets reshaped

Scholars have long documented the significance in young people’s lives of popular culture ideals. These ideals can come in many forms including fashion models, singers and actresses, video game characters and toys. In the case of dolls, research has revealed that girls form a relationship with favorite dolls in which they develop ideal selves in line with the characteristics of the doll. The dolls are a socializing agent, bringing in the ideals of the larger society to the girl’s private life.

A number of studies have documented the perception among younger girls that Barbie is an ideal, that “it’s good to be Barbie,” and that she commands the good opinion of others. Young girls aspire to be like Barbie. In a study published in the journal Developmental Psychology, girls aged 5 to 8 were exposed either to traditional Barbies, to the Emme doll (size 16) or to no dolls (control). Results indicated that these little girls exposed to Barbie had lower self esteem and poorer body image than those in the comparison groups. These results are troubling because poorer body image is related to a host of issues such as disordered eating and weight cycling.

These same scientists report that the negative body image effect they observed in the younger girls went away in older girls, prompting the authors to conclude that Barbie is aspirational for the littlest girls, but in adolescence she becomes an object of some animosity. Kuther and McDonald interviewed adolescents and found similar results. In fact, the reaction of the adolescent girls and boys these scholars interviewed may surprise you. In contrast with the seriousness with which the younger girls attached to Barbie, the older girls and the boys actually turned on Barbie. Although as younger children, they engaged in more traditional pretend play, as older children the boys and girls showed a tendency to engage in what the authors called “torture play” and “anger play” with Barbies. This included hitting Barbie against the wall, crashing Barbie and Ken into walls, stabbing them, cutting their hair, burning them and leaving them out in the snow. The children experienced a lot of this play as humorous and as rebelliousness against the societal perfection epitomized by Barbie and Ken. Girls made comments like, “They are all perfect and it’s just too much,” and “they should make a fat one.”

These teens are not the only ones not comfortable with Barbie’s looks. For years now, there has been a call from some of us asking for dolls that our little girls play with to look more like we do. Other companies have started to respond to that call. For instance, Lammily describes its dolls as the first to pattern the body shapes after actual average human proportions. The Lammily dolls include more true-to-life colors, faces, and clothes. Their slogan is “average is beautiful.” The Lammily doll was brought to life via a successful crowdfunding campaign in 2014. Their website features videos of little girls talking about how they see the traditional Barbie and how they see the more realistic dolls, with the upshot being that they see more of themselves in Lammily and think she looks more approachable and like a regular person.

There have been other analyses and criticisms. For instance, artist Jason Freeny created an anatomical sculpture of Barbie’s body that showed that her digestive system would not function properly and that she’d be classified by doctors as underweight. Her 5’9” height with 18” waist would not be far from the Guiness Book of World Records holder for the world’s smallest waist, which is 15”. The average American woman’s waist is close to twice that size at 35″.

In 2015, Medical Daily reported that, “Barbie’s body measurements set unrealistic goals for girls; sales plummet.” Medical Daily quoted Mattel CEO Brian Stockton as saying that their sales were dropping rapidly and they were not selling enough dolls. They believed that the landscape had changed and that they were not keeping pace.

So, teens were angry at Barbie, kids were feeling badly in comparison to her, and there was mounting discomfort and even outrage. This March, Mattel releases a new line of Barbies. There are four types of these “fashionista” dolls: curvy, petite, tall, and original. The “curvy” dolls look more like Lammily – resembling more average proportions. The petite, tall, and original dolls are all thin, but they do have more realistic features. They reflect a look of more ethnic diversity not only in skin tone, but also in eye color, hair color, and hair texture.

Some have reported a positive reaction to these new Barbies. Others have called for more change – like Bustle fashion and beauty reporter Georgia Jones who asks where the “fat,” “blind,” or “trans” Barbies are. As a mother of an 11-year-old daughter who has thick, red, curly hair, I am happy that she now has a doll who looks like her. Mattel or other companies may not really care about my child – they may just care about profits. I assume they would make a “fat,” “trans,” “blind” doll if they thought it would make them money. Regardless, as I finish this article, I am going to buy my daughter a doll with beautiful curly red hair like her own and I am going to feel good about doing that.

Featured image credit: Girl looking like doll. (c) Svetography via iStock.

Recent Comments

  1. mantelli

    There was a line of toddler dolls in the 60s called Little Imp. My mom got one for me specifically for its red hair. I know just how your daughter feels!

  2. […] Oxford University Press investigated children’s psychological reactions to Barbie dolls, explaining why older children like to burn Barbies and how Mattel’s new slightly more realistic line of Barbies might change things. […]

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