Barbie’s got a Brand New Bag
(and body shape…and hair type…and skin color…and career…)
In honor of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (February 21-27), this post pays homage to a cultural icon that’s getting a makeover.
Tall. Thin. Perfectly straight hair. Glamorous clothes. These are the things I think about when I reminisce about playing with Barbie as a child. Frankly, I never had very much interest in her. I loved Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and G.I. Joes. However, my older sister LOVED her, and as many of us know, what the older sister wants, goes. So, I reluctantly played with that glamorous doll, and as a child I could never express what it was about her that I didn’t like.
After all, I would wear a dress every day if my mom had allowed it, so trying to emulate her glamour and “girly” ways definitely wasn’t the issue. What I realize now, and what I couldn’t articulate then, is that playing with Barbie made me feel inadequate. I was short. I was chubby. My hair was extremely curly. And we couldn’t afford glamorous clothes. Playing with her wasn’t fun because looking at her didn’t reflect what I saw in the mirror (nor anyone else for that matter, since if Barbie were real, she would be 5’9”, 110 lbs, have a 39” bust, 18” waist, 33” hips and a size 3 shoe!).
As children, struggles with body image can start with the items in our toy box (and as early as 6 years old…sigh…). A 2006 British study showed an association between playing with Barbie and lower body esteem and greater desire for a thinner body shape. These body image struggles can continue into our teenage years through the magazine covers and commercials that permeate worlds. And here’s a secret about adulthood: those struggles can extend into this chapter of your life as well.
Some people have taken this issue into their own hands by creating dolls that look and dress like real people (see the amazing hijab-wearing Barbie that has become an Instagram star or the artist in Tasmania who removes the “makeup” and changes clothes of dolls to create a perfectly lovely “dollie” that looks more like the children who play with them…seriously, watch the youtube video). Mattel was paying attention and announced last month that Barbie would be receiving an extensive makeover this year. With 4 different body types (original, tall, curvy, and petite), 7 skin tones, 22 eye colors, and various hair textures, the new Barbie will be an opportunity for young girls to see themselves in the dolls they hold in their hands.
Barbie’s makeover is not limited to physical appearance. With new accessories including spy gear, video game developer equipment, presidential attire, and more, the new Barbie has various career options that reflect the potential that every young girl has within her. Barbie creator, Ruth Handler, states, “My whole philosophy of Barbie was that, through the doll, the girl could be anything she wanted to be. Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.” While the activities of Barbie in my childhood didn’t extend beyond the leisures of cruising in a pink convertible and swimming in a pool alongside a pink mansion, the Barbie of today certainly better represents what young girls can be when they are limited only by their hopes and imagination.
Though the discussion about Barbie’s makeover tends to center around empowering young girls and helping them create and maintain a positive self-image, that stance can limit the potential this change has to affect the expectations there are among those who look upon these girls, including their male counterparts. These transformations can open the door for new discussion among young boys, allowing them to create a healthy assessment of what women are and should be, both in their appearance and in their aspirations. There is real potential to have a national dialogue about differences in appearance, style, hair, skin tone, etc. And this conversation can occur at a younger age, before adolescence, when these concepts can become warped by the perceived significance of the brand of jeans the popular girls are wearing and the latest trends in Seventeen magazine.
However, whenever there is change, there is also a need to take pause and consider what may be left out of this progression (i.e. what the next changes should be). The Ken doll definitely has room for improvement (another set of difficult-to-achieve body standards). There are opportunities for a Barbie that has a more masculine haircut and clothing that doesn’t mold to expectation of femininity. There are opportunities for dolls with different disabilities (check out Lego’s new figure in a wheelchair). Here’s hoping that since there is more diversity in the toy box, there will be increasing acceptance of diversity in other areas of life (ahem, Oscars…).