The launch this month of a new-look, curvaceous Barbie model has reignited the long-running debate about the effect of such (role) models on our girls. For many of the 57 years in which Barbie has been a major part of the doll-collecting scene, her proportions have been a subject of controversy. Does she contribute to the ‘thin’ culture which encourages an impossible ideal of femininity and drives girls and young women into extremes of self-consciousness and risky behaviour with food? Some experts believe so, and, on Barbie’s 50th birthday seven years ago, Professor Janet Treasure, an expert on body size and image at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London gave her expert opinion that, “The promotion of dolls with such a body shape, and other things like size zero, have wider public health implications, like an increased risk of eating disorders.”
Surprisingly little research has been done on the actual impact of dolls’ shapes on attitudes among girls and young women to gender and to their sense of themselves. It is easy to see the ethical problems with any experiment designed to test such a hypothesis using real children as ‘lab rats.’ However, a growing body of evidence is accumulating to confirm a link, such as the 2006 study, reported in the journal ‘Developmental Psychology’. In this study, 162 girls, 5 to 8 years old, were told to look at images of Barbie dolls, Emme dolls (which have more realistic body shapes) or no dolls. Later, they answered questions about body image. The younger girls who looked at Barbie reportedly had lower body esteem and a “greater desire for a thinner body shape,” after playtime, the researchers wrote. Certainly, campaigning groups, such as Let Toys be Toys, have claimed that the persistence of deeply gendered attitudes in the workplace – highlighted in studies such as the 2013 survey which found that two thirds of those questioned thought men make better mechanics, electricians and plumbers than women, and 64 per cent would rather buys flowers from a female florist – is rooted in the blue-for-boys-pink-for-girls segregation of the nation’s toy shops and the prominence of the classic Barbie, with her cinched waist and feet moulded to require high-heeled shoes, as a must-have element of a girl’s collection.
I asked a group of Year 10 (L5) girls, who happened to be taking tea with me this week, for their thoughts on the topic. While they welcomed the idea of broadening the range of Barbie types, they were reassuringly robust on the question of influence. They saw no evidence, either in themselves or in each other, of any lasting impact of skinny Barbie on their self-image or their values. Grace summed it up nicely; ‘when I was young I wanted my Barbie to be a mermaid but that didn’t mean I wanted to grow up to be a mermaid!’ Another point made was that it was the influence of the media, rather than Barbie herself, which had made the doll into a symbol of warped and warping femininity. Barbie, after all, began life as a toy for a real girl, Barbara Handler, and was created to replace two-dimensional paper dolls in a bid to add greater realism to the dressing-up experience but her life, after launch, as it were, was not her own.
While this is surely too important a question to be left to the vagaries of the marketplace, there are positive signs that, even there, a change is in the air. Admittedly, the launch of the range of new Barbies – with four body shapes, including curvy, seven skin tones and 24 hairstyles – may be a shrewd commercial move to create a larger-than-ever range of dolls for consumers to collect. Could it also be, though, a sign of a new, healthier attitude to the contents of our daughters’ play box?
The fact that manufacturer Mattel’s redesign comes after a 43% decline in sales for the classic Barbie models since 2013 suggests that parents are increasingly voting with their credit cards against the impossible perfectionism embodied in classic Barbie’s physique and, in 2014, Lego, which has recently put great effort into diversifying its products, overtook Mattel as the leading toy manufacturer.
Only time will tell whether curvy Barbie will capture the imagination of girls as completely as her skinny classic cousin has done for decades. Anecdotally, the case looks promising; “These ones look like people that walk down the street,” observed 8-year old Lela in a recent focus group on the new range presented by The Guardian. And her verdict? “They’re funner.”
Perhaps the launch of new Barbie – codenamed ‘Project Dawn’ by Mattel – really will herald the dawn of a new age of sanity in doll design. In a month which also saw the release of figures showing a sharp increase in recourse by women to cosmetic surgery (with record numbers of procedures being carried out in the UK last year, 91% of them on women), we can only hope so.