What Is the Barbie Effect?

Since its introduction in 1959, Barbie dolls have taken over the world. Young girls have been playing around with Barbie dolls for decades now. Today, Mattel, the company that produces and sells Barbie dolls has sold over a billion dolls, making it the company’s most profitable lines. However, Barbie has had some negative influences on young girls as well.

As a result of these influences, the toy has been the center of several controversies and lawsuits. Many argue that Barbie makes certain young girls extremely conscious about their looks at a very young age. Playing with a doll may seem harmless but a child may develop serious body image issues. Barbie is supposed to be an epitome of beauty. It has the perfect facial and body features, which every female wishes to have but there is a dark side to it as well, known as the Barbie Effect.


Ruth Handler, an American businesswoman, and wife of Elliot, the co-founder of Mattel Toy Company, observed her daughter play with paper dolls and was fond of giving them adult roles. At the time, most of the children’s toy dolls were mainly infants. Handler realized that there may be a gap in the market and therefore, suggested the idea to her husband. Initially, Elliot along with Mattel’s directors was unenthusiastic about the idea.

Then, Handler along with her children Kenneth and Barbara visited Europe in 1956. There, she came across an adult toy doll, which was exactly what she had in mind. Handler purchased three toy dolls, gave one to Barbara, and took the other two to Mattel. The best thing about these toy dolls was that girls love to dress them up using clothes and accessories that were sold separately. Barbie made its debut in March 1959 at the American International Toy Fair and has become one of the oldest toys available for sale. The initial production was carried out in Japan and the company managed to sell more than 350,000 Barbie dolls during the first year of production.

Opposed to Handler’s idea of Barbie having an adult look, several parents were critical of Barbie’s chest. Over the years, the appearance of Barbie has changed several times, particularly in 1971, when the eyes were adjusted to look forward rather than sideways.

The Barbie Effect

Physiological Influence

As Barbie continued to capture major markets around the world, it was setting unrealistic beauty standards amongst young girls and females. For them, being 5’9 with F-cup chest and weighing around 50 pounds was the way to go. However, in reality, these dimensions were unrealistic and the body would not be able to support itself. Over time, several studies were conducted on the psychological influence of Barbie dolls on young girls playing.

It was found that these girls were vulnerable to developing self-esteem issues that could sustain in adulthood as well. Many women today opt for plastic surgeries to achieve the same proportions. At a young age, they might not feel the effects but as one becomes older, the side-effects start to show. However, with time, the influence of Barbie is slowly dying. Women and celebrities have shunned these unrealistic beauty standards and demands by welcoming models with plus size figures.

Body Image

Similar to the psychological effects, Barbie has had a negative influence on body image as well. Since Barbie became a role model for many girls at a very young age, it was only logical that young girls would try to emulate her in the future. One of many concerns regarding Barbie’s unrealistic beauty standards were the thin stick limbs. This made many young girls anorexic trying to achieve the very same proportions.

Furthermore, this obsession could lead to eating disorders as well in an attempt to drastically cut down weight. Women tend to be conscious about their waist and hips and Barbie had the perfect numbers. However, this would only make on take extreme steps, which could permanently affect both mental and physical health.

Following the criticism surrounding Barbie’s body image, Mattel made modifications to the waist by making it wider. Mattel was of the view that after widening the waist, Barbie would now become more suited to contemporary fashion designs. Then in 2016, Mattell introduced a new line of Barbie dolls that featured new body types such as ‘petite’, ‘tall’, and ‘curvy’. The ‘curvy’ doll caught the attention of the world as it directly supported women with curvy figures.

Bad Influence on Cultures

Although Barbie was being sold successfully around 150 stores in the world but some countries such as Saudi Arabia had strong concerns about the overall appearance and dressing of the doll. Countries that relied on Islamic values did not receive Barbie quite as well. Muslim-majority nations have an alternative doll called Fulla, which conforms to Islamic values and principles. In 2003, Saudi Arabia had banned Barbie dolls but it was temporary. However, it was still available for sale in other Muslim countries such as Egypt and Indonesia.

Then in 2014, Mattel received criticism over the book ‘I Can Be a Computer Engineer’. The book showcased Barbie as being inept at computers and sought the help of two male friends to restore laptops, which had virus downloaded in them. The book was termed as ‘sexist’ and soon after more criticism hurled in, Mattel removed the book for sale on Amazon. Barbie had received criticism for a lack of diversity as well.

As a result, ‘Colored Francie’ made its debut in 1967 but lacked African features. Mattel continued making changes to the doll but the proportions remained the same. Then, in 2009, Mattel introduced the ‘So in Style’ range that featured realistic African American features. Mattel expanded the line by introducing twenty-two eye colors, seven skin tones, and twenty-four hairstyles due to declining sales.

Final Word

Concluding, there is no doubt that Barbie has had a huge influence on young girls and women and is one of the most iconic toys of all time. Plus, Mattel had failed to recognize and identify the consequences it could have on them. As a result, Barbie was surrounded by numerous controversies that raised concerns across the world. Today, the fashion industry is open to plus-size models, which is a huge achievement in terms of accepting unique body proportions and injecting confidence in women. Therefore, with the passage of time, what was once considered ‘ideal’ for women is not ideal anymore.