Dolls have been entertaining kids for millennia, but the criticism that parents shower upon them is a new phenomenon. Modern moms nowadays are interested in how a toy can shape their children’s perception of the world and themselves.
And the toy that probably receives the most scrutiny is Barbie. Launched in 1959, Barbie dolls are owned by almost all 3 to 10-year-old girls in the USA. It has also become a popular request for girls’ Christmas wish lists for 55 years. In recent years, Barbie has been blamed for causing body image issues and even eating disorders. She has been said to perpetuate gender stereotypes that lead to domestic violence and the gender pay gap. But is the Barbie effect really all that bad?
Barbie’s Body Shape
There’s no need to question whether Barbie’s body shape is unrealistic or not. According to researchers, her proportions would happen in less than one in a 100,000 adult women.
According to Mattel, Barbie’s proportions were created for ease of dressing and undressing the doll and not for replicating an adult woman’s figure. However, Barbie in TV shows, books, movies, and various online games also feature her in a very thin and proportionate body. In the dolls and all forms of media, Barbie represents an unattainable figure for women.
The ubiquitous Barbie doll weighs 110 lbs. and is 5’9” tall. It’s an unrealistic proportion, and if Barbie were a real person, her body mass index would approach the “severely underweight” range.
The Barbie Effect in Girls’ Body Image
Almost 40% of children are dissatisfied with how they look, and girls, even as young as five years old, report weight concerns and a desire to be thinner.
Body image is a complex psychological construct, and we are yet to fully understand how body image or dissatisfaction develops in very young children. But we do know that children learn by observing and imitating the things they see around them. Their early ideas about appearance and weight are shaped by their family, media, and their peers.
Children’s media inadvertently perpetuates stereotypical messages about beauty, weight, and appearance. The protagonists and the good characters are always beautiful and thin, and the bad ones are ugly and heavier.
According to studies cited by the National Eating Disorders, 42% of girls in first to third grade wants to be thinner, four out of five 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat, and half of the girls aged 9-10 feel better about themselves when they are dieting. This is a shocking and worrying statistic, especially since it involves young children not even out of elementary school.
The anxieties and worries they experience are a product of the culture and media that prizes a thin image for women and devalues and degrades any woman who strays outside the norm of a skinny body.
Barbie itself had a reputation for perpetuating this idea. Besides the fact that the classic Barbie is thin, toymaker Mattel also released a Slumber Party Barbie in the ’60s, along with combs, hair rollers, and a sleeping bag. This Barbie set comes with a weighing scale permanently stuck at 110 lbs. and a small book titled “How to Lose Weight.” The only words written in the book were the all-caps instruction, “DON’T EAT!” Though this example was decades ago and was an outdated notion, later on, this advice would re-emerge as the code word “IDEA.” It was used online by people with eating disorders – a short for the phrase, “I don’t eat anymore.”
When it comes to the Barbie effect, relatively few studies have specifically evaluated the doll’s impact on young girls. One experimental study involving 5-8-year-olds in the UK assessed the impact of viewing images of Barbie and a more realistic doll, or neutral images that didn’t involve dolls while listening to a simple story.
The girls who viewed the images of Barbie had lower scores on the Body Esteem scale after being exposed to the images and indicated a preference for a thinner body. Successive research that asked young girls to play with Barbie dolls or control toys displayed no immediate negative impact of Barbie on body image.
In another study published in 2006 in Developmental Psychology, exposure to Barbie dolls showed a significant effect on young girls’ body image. When girls aged 6-10 were assigned to play with either a very thin doll or an average-sized doll, the children who played with the thin doll ended up eating significantly less food. The bodies represented by the dolls directly influence how children view themselves and how they feed themselves.
Regarding the long-term effects, retrospective studies asked adult women to report their childhood habits regarding playing Barbie and their current body image and eating behaviors. The study found that those who liked playing Barbies when they were young more than others had higher conformity to feminine norms when they turned adults – particularly, a higher focus on appearance.
However, there wasn’t a link between playing with Barbie as a child and levels of body dissatisfaction or disordered eating behaviors as an adult.
Why Moms are Pro or Anti-Barbie
In 2011, Popsugar’s Circle of Moms voiced out their views on Barbie, and they debated whether she’s a bad influence or not on their little girls.
Moms who are anti-Barbie argued that the unrealistic body proportions of the doll make her a bad influence on young children. A mom said it teaches young girls to have unrealistic expectations of their bodies, which causes low self-esteem when they are older. A young boy’s mother voiced the opinion that Barbie dolls set a poor example for boys as well. She says it sets unhealthy and unrealistic examples of women.
Meanwhile, not all moms are against Barbie dolls. Many allow their children to play with those dolls because they say it’s just a doll. A mom said kids don’t really analyze Barbie’s breast size. Another mom said her daughter played with Barbie, but she doesn’t expect herself to be built like Barbie.
Other moms see Barbie as a positive influence on a child because it promotes creative play. A mother of four kids said her daughter has several Barbie dolls and a dollhouse, and it encouraged her to design her own clothes for her dolls, and it stimulates her imagination.
Barbie’s “You can be anything” campaign has been positively received by some moms as well. A mom suggested that another benefit of Barbie is that they are exposed to diverse career options, including more traditionally male-dominated occupations.
The Bottom Line
Barbie may get a bad rep from some modern moms, but Mattel listened to their concerns. In 2016, the company launched three new Barbie bodies: curvy, tall, and petite. It was the biggest change for Barbie, which was a push forward towards body positivity.
Also, buying your girls the latest Barbie doll isn’t always going to do them any harm. But we need to be aware of the level of appearance-focused media that girls are being exposed to. Young girls are unconsciously receiving messages about how they should look. As parents, we can’t protect the children from all this, but we can teach them how to filter and critique it.