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Barbie Makes a Comeback, Or Does She?

By: Kristine Strangis

Barbie, a doll that most of us grew up with and one that continues to be popular today. As the article claims, Barbie is the world’s best selling doll, and therefore greatly impacts the children who play with her. Therefore, Mattel set out to answer the question: “If you could design Barbie today, how would you make her a reflection of the times?”

Given our current times, where acceptance of multicultural and body diversity is becoming more mainstream, it seems fitting that Barbie should adapt to this as well.

Barbie quote-1Mattel, the company who created Barbie, just released three new body shapes—petite, tall, and curvy—and seven skin tones, with 22 eye colors and 24 hairstyles. Overall, there is going to be 33 new dolls coming out.

On the surface, it seems like we are one step closer to improving body image and helping young girls see that beauty comes in all shapes, colors, and sizes. What could possibly go wrong?

Is this a step in the right direction? Mattel claims that their aim is to create a more real and accurate representation of the diverse world that young girls are living in. “We have to let girls know it doesn’t matter what shape you come in, that anything is possible,” Tania Missad, director of consumer insights for the doll line, said. This sounds like a good thing altogether, the fact that Mattel is trying to stand up against the dangerous thin ideal and send a more real and empowering message that diversity is what makes us all beautiful. But, given Mattel’s history, there is bound to be backlash.

Mattel created Barbie and, for decades, Barbie was an oppressive symbol of the thin ideal with her unrealistic proportions and lack of any real character. As the article claims, the Elsa doll from the hit Disney movie Frozen has been outselling Barbie because, although she is still thin, blonde, and overall representative of this oppressive image, at least she represents empowerment through her character. “Therein lies Barbie’s problem. As much as Mattel has tried to market her as a feminist, Barbie’s famous figure has always overshadowed her business outfits. At her core, she’s just a body, not a character, a canvas upon which society can project its anxieties about body image.”

So, is it really right for Mattel to be putting out this empowering message when they were the ones who were part of the whole thin ideal movement in the first place?

Sadly, “Mattel has also long claimed that Barbie has no influence on girls’ body image, pointing to whisper-thin models and even moms as the source of the dissatisfaction that too many young girls feel about their bodies.” If you are going to promote body diversity, at least own up to the fact that you may have contributed to young girls low self-esteem.  Research finds that “a handful of studies suggest that Barbie does have at least some influence on what girls see as the ideal body. The most compelling, a 2006 study published in the journal Developmental Psychology, found that girls exposed to Barbie at a young age expressed greater concern with being thin, compared with those exposed to other dolls.”

Overall, I think that it is great that Mattel is recreating the image of Barbie to be more representative of the world that we live in. This is a change that needs to happen. But, I just do not know if it will be enough to rewrite their history of contribution to young girls low self-esteem.

I was once a young girl who played with Barbie dolls, and I developed an eating disorder. I suffered and nearly died from anorexia nervosa for six years desperate to achieve this impossible thin and perfectionistic ideal. Now, I am not saying that playing with Barbie dolls as a kid caused my eating disorder, eating disorders are biological, psychological, social, cultural, and overall complex illnesses with many factors, but Barbie definitely was a factor. So, overall, I guess I am glad that Barbie is changing. This is a step in the right direction and, although we cannot change the past, we can try to create a better world for the next generation.

“Ultimately, haters are going to hate,” Dickson of Mattel says. “We want to make sure the Barbie lovers love us more—and perhaps changing the people who are negative to neutral. That would be nice.”

Discussion Questions:

How do you feel about the changes Mattel is making with Barbie?

Do you think these changes are harmful or helpful?

Do you think that Barbie contributed to the development of your eating disorder?

How do you think these changes to Barbie are going to help young girls today?

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