BARBIE SALES have been plummeting for years, likely because of a more prominent national conversation about body image and a progressive shift toward more gender-neutral toys for children. In a bid to stay relevant in this changing market, Mattel, the company behind the iconic doll, announced on January 28th that it will be releasing a new line of Barbie dolls representing three different body types: tall, petite, and “curvy.” The dolls will be available in different skin tones, hairstyles, and eyes colors.
The history of Barbie is hardly a feminist tale. Aside from completely-unrealistic body proportions over the past 57 years of its existence, Barbie and her creators have disseminated various negative message to young girls. In 1965, “Slumber Party Barbie” came with a scale set to 110 lbs. and a book entitled, “How to Lose Weight” – the only instruction was: “Don’t Eat!” Yes, that really happened. And in the early 90’s, “Teen Talk Barbie” uttered the phrase “Math class is tough!”, reinforcing the sexist idea that girls just aren’t any good with those tricky numbers (and perhaps, by extension, other intellectual activities).
Mattel has made efforts to progress with the times in recent years. In 2013, the company released a Barbie book featuring the doll as a computer engineer designing a game. Last year, “Imagine the Possibilities” Barbie’s “message” was that girls can grow up to be anything they want to be. Also in 2015, Mattel released a line of dolls with different skin tones, eye colors, and facial features to diversify the product.
But these efforts were not beyond criticism. Aja Romano at Daily Dot reported that computer engineer Barbie was featured designing a stereotypically “frivolous” and “girly” game, which she needed the help of her guy friends to code:
“I’m only creating the design ideas,” Barbie says, laughing. “I’ll need Steven’s and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!”
Marianne Cooper, writing for The Atlantic last November, provided a disturbing list of research into the effects of playing with Barbie dolls on girls’ perceptions of their future possibilities and their bodies – effects that held true even when Doctor and Dentist Barbie were played with. One small study compared girls’ perceptions of what they could be when they grow up after assigning them to play with either Barbies or Mrs. Potato Head; the Barbie players identified fewer future possibilities for themselves. Another study found that girls who heard a story illustrated with Barbie dolls had higher levels of body dissatisfaction than girls who heard the same story featuring full-bodied dolls. A third found that girls who played with Barbie subsequently ate less than those who played with dolls of different body types.
While greater diversity within the product line was a step forward, the Barbies of recent years retained the infamous unrealistic body type of old. If a woman’s proportions were the same as Barbie’s, she would not have enough room in her abdomen for all her organs, and her neck would not be capable of supporting her head. After 57 years, Mattel has decided to get a little more real with Barbie’s body; offering diverse body types is a long-overdue step forward for the iconic doll. “I think today, frankly more so than any other time, Barbie is truly representing what girls see,” Richard Dickson, Mattel’s president and chief operating officer, told The New York Times. Dr. Kelli Harding, assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, welcomes the change: “I think as a woman it’s about time, and as a physician, I strongly support that.”
Rajul Jain, a DePaul University professor of public relations and advertising, explains what she sees as a serious shortcoming of Mattel’s efforts to make more realistic dolls:
[C]hurning out dolls in new shapes and colors does not address the key issue that the focus is still on our bodies, our exteriors. While we might have changed the look, what we haven’t changed is the narrative.
The core narrative of Barbie has been — and remains — centered on appearance and fashion, Jain argues. The new dolls may look different from one another, but each is posed with the standard bent wrist and equipped with traditionally-feminine clothing and accessories. This may be why Doctor Barbie failed to expand girls’ ideas about their possibilities – she is as sexualized as the fashion dolls.
Having dolls that represent different body types may help combat problematic body image expectations, but it might not do much to attenuate girls’ fixation on their appearance. It is true that Barbie is far from the only perpetrator of bullsh*t messages young girls get about who and how they should be. However, since an estimated 90% of girls between the ages of three and 10 own at least one Barbie, progress within the product line — along with the shortcomings thereof — deserve attention.