Mattel recently announced that their half-century-old centerfold would be getting a brand new look. The new Barbie will come in three different body shapes (tall, curvy and petite) and a variety of skin tones, eye colors and hairstyles.
Barbie’s new look is likely the result of criticisms that her unnatural and unattainable proportions might be giving young girls who play with her a negative message about body image.
From my perspective as a researcher of children’s learning and behavior, the big question is: do girls really learn about body image through playing with dolls? And if so, how is the new Barbie an important first step?
Bad news for old Barbie
Much of the concern about Barbie started in the early 2000s, when studies came out showing that overly thin dolls made girls feel bad about themselves.
One of these studies showed that five-year-old girls who were read a storybook with photographs of Barbie dolls (U.S. size 2) felt worse about their bodies and expressed a stronger desire to be thin than girls who were read a storybook with pictures of an Emme doll (U.S. size 16), or girls who were read a storybook with pictures of other neutral objects, like colorful balloons.
Perhaps what is more problematic is that girls as young as three-and-a-half have also been found to associate thin dolls with positive personality traits and heavy dolls with negative personality traits. For example, when asked to describe the traits of three dolls – one thin, one average and one heavy – preschool-aged girls were most likely to call the thin doll smart or happy and the heavy doll sad or tired.
Despite having short-term effects on how girls feel about themselves, there is no evidence that playing with Barbie dolls has a long-term effect on self-esteem. For example, in a study where researchers asked over 200 adults to describe how much they played with Barbie dolls growing up, there was no relationship between how much they played with Barbie as children and how they felt about their bodies as adults. So it’s possible that the negative effect of playing with the old Barbie is short-lived.
Body image and the media
But, does that mean that brief periods of feeling bad about your body aren’t important or impactful?
Children and adults can often use social comparison to construct their own body image. In other words, in order to decide what we should look like – what the “ideal” is – we look around us, to our toys, our friends and the mass media.
Toys give children some indication of what grown men and women should look like.
The development of a young woman’s body image starts with toys, but is then reinforced by popular media as they get older. There are various studies demonstrating that looking at magazines with pictures of ultra-thin models and celebrities increases adolescent girls’ and grown women’s body dissatisfaction and self-esteem.
Playing with the old Barbie doll with her high heels, an impossibly tiny waist and flowing blond hair might make little girls feel bad about their bodies for only a brief period of time. But the image of this tiny-waisted model-like figure will be repeated in the movies and television shows that they will watch, and in the popular magazines that they will read.
Playing with Barbie is just a first step in children’s exposure to media. So, the new Barbie – with her tall, curvy or petite sized body – is also a first step in promoting a much healthier body image for young girls.
Making available dolls of different skin colors, eye colors and hairstyles also signifies an important step in providing children with the flexibility to choose a doll that best fits with their own body image – a flexibility that historically hasn’t always been available to children of all races and ethnicities.
The new Barbie is a step in the right direction, but it is only a first step. We have much further to go in terms of producing media that portray women in a manner that promotes a positive and healthy self-image in developing girls.