What Barbie’s Makeover Means For The Future Of Body Image

Barbie's body changes have been met with mixed reactions--but here's why her impact still matters, more than 50 years after her debut.

February 3, 2016
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By the time I was 5 years old, I had collected a huge stash of Barbie dolls. Each of these dolls also had an extensive wardrobe, endless accessories, and an array of job uniforms. Barbie was a career woman, after all–and I loved to imagine that I could be that fabulous, that pretty, and that pulled together.

However, as we’ve all come to know, Barbie didn’t look anything like me. Barbie had a tiny waist and major curves–proportions that were unrealistic to a chubby little girl like me, so stepping into her pink heels always took a bit of imagination. Ultimately, I may never know the effect this difference had on my self-image.

Last week, Mattel announced that Barbie was getting a makeover; the iconic doll’s line will soon expand to include seven new skin tones and three new body types (curvy, tall, and petite). This change was met with a wave of criticism amidst a crowd of cheers–but for me, it was met with a smile.

I can’t honestly say how playing with Barbie affected me. Today, I’d easily be considered a glamour girl with an extensive closet and a real career. I also have my fair share of body image issues, much like most other women, some of which likely took root about the same time I was playing with Barbie.

In 2006, researchers at the University of Sussex studied the effects of Barbie’s body type on 5- to 8-year-old girls. While the older girls seemed more or less immune to the dolls’ immediate impacts, the youngest girls were more negative about their bodies and had a greater desire to be thinner after playing with the toys.

I don’t look like Barbie. I also don’t look like a model on a runway or a celebrity on a red carpet. But extensive research has shown us that toys, media, and other images all play a role in the development of self-esteem, and we need to watch what messages kids are absorbing.

For a Time piece about the new dolls, writer Eliana Dockterman was allowed to watch a focus group of young girls (around age 6) play with the curvy dolls. The result? Horrifying. There was mocking, there was laughing, there was a chorus of the word “fat.” And these girls are barely reading and writing. Yet they know “curvy” Barbie is purported to be less desirable than the thin and svelte images plastered across the media.

I doubt anyone can understand exactly why 6-year-old girls would behave this way. But it’s exactly why we need more changes in the realm of body image. We need more images of women coming in all sizes. We need to celebrate high-profile women for their accomplishments, not their shapes. We need to embrace different features as beautiful and accept ourselves as we are–when we’re 6, 16, 26, and beyond.

I wasn’t consciously aware of my own body image issues until I was in my twenties. But I was acutely aware of the fact that my body wasn’t perfect, and I wasn’t satisfied with it from a very young age. When I was young, I had baby fat. I felt chubby and alienated. When I was older and lost that roundness, it was replaced with thick muscle, which wasn’t much better in my mind. I was never “skinny” until college–and then I was too skinny.

The cookie-cutter perfection Barbie always seemed to embody forever eluded me. And that’s why we should thank Mattel for this small change. It won’t rock the culture, and most of us will forget about it in a week or two. But the impact might be valuable, if immeasurable. Barbie’s makeover is a slow step in combating the pervasive cultural message that beauty is singular.

Let’s never forget that little girls absorb messages at a rapid pace, from absolutely everywhere. Looking back, I know I did. And we shouldn’t discount the psychological impact of a doll’s appearance on a girl’s body image as she grows; playtime is the space in which her mind grows, attaching to ideas that are both uplifting and detrimental.

Altering that girl’s view of the female body as diverse, purposeful, and worth celebrating must come through small changes–even changing the look of a doll we’ve known and loved for 50 years. 

So, three cheers for 23 new Barbies representing endless forms of beauty. It’s about time.

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