Does Barbie Give Girls a Bad Body Image?

Does Barbie Give Girls a Bad Body Image?I’ve noticed two distinct sides in the debate about Barbie. One group exclaims that Barbie presents an unrealistic view of the female form and directly contributes to a negative body image for the scores of women who played with her as little girls. In the most melodramatic version of this critique, the doll haunts us as we get older, taunting with her ample bosom, unattainable waist, ridiculously long legs, and permanently pointed toes (only heels, ladies). She represents our first introduction to impossible female beauty standards.

Not so fast, say Barbie’s defenders. This cohort believes Barbie has been unfairly made a scapegoat for all body image issues. They point out that lots of little girls play with Barbie and grow up perfectly fine. The defenders also think we should give little girls more credit. Kids know Barbie is a fantasy, similar to G.I. Joe or Spider Man (after all, the dolls don’t even have genitals, and we don’t pretend Mattel wants to promote a world full of eunuchs). Fantasy is by its definition fantastical.

I’m sympathetic to both viewpoints. I’ve tried to ban Barbie completely in our household and I’ve also insisted she is just a doll, not a nefarious instrument of body image destruction. Clearly, I’m conflicted.

I’ve always wondered, does Barbie actually give girls a bad body image? Is the ire fair? To answer this question, I looked at some of the studies on Barbie and body image; yes, there are studies on this. I also thought about Barbie’s context, the arguments for and against Barbie, and the recent marketing of a brand new line of Barbies with more varied body shapes.

Drum Roll Please

What did I decide? After looking at the limited studies and thinking way too long about this doll (admittedly one I played with A LOT growing up), I’ve decided, yes, some of the ire is fair, but the relationship between Barbie and body image is complicated and banning Barbie isn’t going to magically predispose our daughters to a good body image. That said, I’ll probably buy at least one “curvy” doll from the new Barbie line. Reshaping the doll in the 21st century is a good idea, all things considered. (It’s also a really smart marketing move.)

The Arguments For and Against Barbie

Before looking at the psychological research, let’s spend a bit more time on the arguments for and against Barbie. The most prominent argument against Barbie is visual. She. Looks. Ridiculous. Her proportions don’t remotely resemble any real woman ever. I recently read about the “anatomical Barbie,” created by a NYC artist who sliced open Barbies and made models of their organs. The artist couldn’t even fit plausible innards into Barbie because of her super skinny proportions.

Similarly, a student trying to promote awareness of eating disorders made a life size Barbie. To keep the correct proportions, her life-size Barbie had to be 5 feet 9 inches tall, with a 36 inch bust, 18 inch waist, and 33 inch hips. The student estimated she’d weigh about 110 pounds and wear a size 3 shoe. 110 pounds at 5 feet 9 inches equals a BMI of 16, which puts Barbie at the “severe thinness” cutoff. Clearly, Barbie isn’t realistic. Some people argue against these stunts by saying Barbie doesn’t need to be realistic. She’s a doll. She is a fantasy. And we need to lighten up.

I’m all for lightening up, but of all the Barbie defenses, I find the “fantasies” one the most troubling. Of course she isn’t realistic (hello size 3 shoes), but it’s the fantasy that bothers me. Why must the fantasy sadly reinforce the super skinny (yet large bosomed) representations so common in popular culture? Could it be that the fantasy of Barbie came from the minds of men rather than from the aspirations of little girls? Unsurprisingly, yes.

Barbie’s Origins

Barbie was modeled on the Lilli doll, which was a “racy gag gift to adult men in tobacco shops.” Ruth Handler, Barbie’s inventor, noticed that little girls liked to play with dolls that looked like adult women. She bought the rights to the Lilli doll, made her own version, and advertised it on TV. It was a massive success. The first mass produced Barbie was debuted in 1959.

Little girls may have liked playing with dolls modeled on adults, but the default was a male fantasy because of convenience. Perhaps a more reasonably proportioned doll would have taken off instead? Who knows? Counterfactuals aside, Barbie is clearly not a feminist icon, and I don’t care how many clothes for cool jobs you sell, her origins in male fantasy are distinctly disturbing.

Ah, but just because we moms notice the odd proportions and project our hangups onto the doll, does this mean little girls see her as anything other than a toy to dress up? Are we making much ado about nothing? This question is definitely worth asking. And like any good question, the answer can’t be based on anecdote, either for or against, and anecdote is pretty much all I see on the internet when discussing Barbie. For example, I hear so many women say, “I played with Barbies and I’m just fine.” This does not make a good defense of Barbie. Similarly, some women remember their own troubled body image issues and vow to remove Barbie from their daughters lives, but how do we know Barbie herself caused those body image problems?

Normative Discontent

According to psychologists, body image issues for women are a “normative discontent,” which means not liking your shape is normal (men have their own body image issues, but this post is getting long enough). This “normative discontent” is both the best defense and best critique of Barbie. If body image problems are so common, pinpointing one doll as the culprit does not make a lot of sense. Clearly, something larger is happening in the culture.

On the other hand, if body image problems are so common, the popularity of a doll for little girls that reinforces, even passively, an unrealistic body shape is not an innocuous or guiltless presence in the background of our childhoods. It behooves us to figure out when girls start to hate their bodies and why.

Let me be clear, not for a second do I think handing a girl a Barbie means she suddenly decides to hate her body. This is a false dichotomy that permeates the Barbie debate. However, simply saying “she’s just a doll” conveniently ignores her place in the larger culture. After all, a journalist who watched 6 year olds play with the new differently shaped Barbies overhead some of the girls calling the “curvy” doll “fat, fat, fat.” Ummm, yeah, that’s a problem (the doll is only barely “curvy”).

Curvy Barbie
The so called “fat” Barbie. Image from Barbie.com.

The Studies

Now to those studies. When my daughter was a wee little babe, I read about a 2006 study that showed girls exposed to Barbie “reported lower body esteem and greater desire for a thinner body shape” than girls exposed to Emme dolls or to no dolls. After reading about this study, I ANNOUNCED to my family no one was allowed to buy her a Barbie (the kind of announcement only a new mom of one kid would make). I also spent a ton of time trying to find the perfect Barbie alternative (Emme dolls were not in my price range or easy to locate). When my daughter finally showed interest in dolls, she was temporarily amused by the little girl looking dolls I had acquired, but she quickly wanted a real Barbie like she had seen at friends’ homes (and frankly at my parents’ home because my mom had found a loophole to my “no buying Barbie” rule. She had gotten my old Barbies out of storage and said they hadn’t been specifically “purchased” for my daughter. Touché).

By the time my daughter explicitly asked for Barbies, her first little brother had already been born, and I was pregnant with her second little brother, so my adamant refusal to buy Barbie had been replaced with “just get her whatever will keep her occupied.” Although the Barbies were initially limited to periodic visits with Grandma, Santa finally gave into her requests after she beseeched him for one. Santa is a softie after all.

In retrospect, my no Barbies rule probably made Barbie more enticing. We aren’t Amish. She was bound to run into Barbie somewhere. And she really wouldn’t let it go. My fears of “instantaneous Barbie-induced body image ruin” were unfounded; she plays with them sometimes, but no more than any other toy. Making a big deal out of Barbie had made it a big deal. Chilling out had made it less of a big deal. This seems so obvious now, but for some reason I had latched onto that one study as evidence Barbie would ruin her self-image forever. I was naive. And I didn’t really understand the science.

That 2006 study— called “Does Barbie Make Girls Want to be Thin?”—did indeed show an inverse correlation between body image and Barbie exposure. However, a 2010 study that explicitly tried to replicate and build off the findings of the 2006 study had different results. The authors of “The Effects of Playing with Thin Dolls on Body Image and Food Intake in Young Girls” separated 117 six to ten year old Dutch girls into three groups. One group played with a thin doll (a Barbie and a smaller replica of a Barbie), another group played with the Emme doll, and a third group acted as a control by playing with legos. After 10 minutes, the girls were given candy under the guise of a taste test and asked to fill out a questionnaire on body image. Unlike the original study, the body image responses did not differ based on what type of doll the girls played with. However, interestingly, the “girls who played with the average sized doll ate significantly more than girls who played with a thin doll.”

The authors hypothesized that their inability to replicate the 2006 study was caused by study design differences. The 2006 study showed pictures to little girls, whereas the 2010 study had them play with the actual dolls. In the first scenario, the little girls had no agency. They were simply responding to images shown to them, but in the second scenario girls were “in control of the play.” In other words, seeing images of the dolls is more like what happens when you consume media via pictures of models or television shows, but playing with the dolls is more akin to how girls actually interact with Barbie. As for the eating more after playing with the normal size dolls, I have no idea what to make of that. They didn’t eat less when playing with Barbie, but rather ate more when playing with the “normal” dolls. Frankly, this is intriguing, but I would need to see this replicated before drawing any conclusions. Because…it’s a head scratcher. The authors hypothesized the girls felt less inhibition after playing with a normal sized doll, but who knows.

Even if these two studies don’t provide slam dunk evidence of a negative association between Barbie and body image, the bulk of body image research does show that exposure to media images contributes to negative body esteem. This exposure is part of the socialization of little girls. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to imagine that socialization through dolls could also have a negative effect. I’m encouraged by efforts to understand this socialization, but studies like this have major limitations. Playing with dolls for 10 minutes and then filling out a questionnaire while being offered candy isn’t exactly a real world scenario. And maybe no real world scenario can be established to parse out the very specific affect of Barbie on body image. I imagine not. Psychological science can try, but I remain skeptical. I also don’t think we need a study to prove Barbie is bad or Barbie is good. Those aren’t the only two categories available.

Barbie is part of a larger social context. She is both “just a doll” AND a meaningful representation of the images tossed out about how women should look. Therefore, I let my daughter (and sons) play with Barbie, but I also get them anatomy books. I view Barbie as a way into a conversation about bodies. And this is why I welcome different plastic bodies into the mix (even if varied bodies cause Barbie clothes woes). Anything that promotes conversation is good. At the same time, I try not to be a feminist loudspeaker overanalyzing my daughter’s every movement and forcing conversation when she’s just trying to chill with her dolls (although I still don’t like the Barbie cartoon, both because it is more akin to the 2006 experiment of passive media and because it is annoying, so so annoying).

Overall, I’ve lightened up. Barbie won’t give my daughter a bad body image all by itself. She may be an oddly proportioned doll that sprang from male fantasy, but times are a-changing; Mattel is literally using the hashtag #thedollevolves. This may be a marketing decision, but it is one I welcome. Little girls (and boys) notice bodies, and Barbie’s ubiquity makes her a weird looking conversation starter. Good enough for me.

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