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Are bigger and smaller Barbies better for the self-image of girls?

Mattel announces the release of a diverse group of new Barbie dolls.

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    The new Barbie dolls introduced in January 2016. Mattel, the maker of the famous plastic doll, said it will start selling Barbie’s in three new body types: tall, curvy and petite. She’ll also come in seven skin tones, 22 eye colors and 24 hairstyles.
    (Mattel via AP)
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Like many women, Barbie was so tired of hearing people talk about her weight that Mattel decided to change it dramatically. 

Mattel actually expanded more than Barbie's waistline by introducing dolls that strive to mitigate the impact of body and ethnic labels with dolls that are more diverse in height, skin tone, and hair texture as well as realistic proportions.

Some say the change is aimed at helping redefine beauty, and help free future generations of women from self-loathing. Others see it as a simple business model shift that now allows Mattel to make money on accessory and clothing lines as little girls buy into the new dolls that have different body shapes.

The dolls received a mostly celebratory response on Twitter.

“Not being a soothsayer I can’t say how this will affect future generations,” says Adrienne Ressler, a Florida body image expert at the Renfrew Center for Eating Disorders in a phone interview. “But this is not new. Dove soap had a beautiful campaign about body image that was very well done. However, from the article I read this [Barbie] is different in that it came about because Mattel was losing money. So it’s more than about seeing the good about helping girls with self-image and diversity. Mattel also wants to make some money on this.”

Ms. Ressler says, “I don’t like to sound like a cynic, but for Mattel this is a chance to sell a whole lot of doll clothes because traditional Barbie dresses won’t fit on a curvy Barbie and tall Barbie clothes are too long for short Barbie and so on. Parents are going to be shelling out a lot more money.”

“I think the basic idea is very well intentioned, but I think that the message that goes along with it is very important,” she says. “There’s more to body image than a doll.”

Ressler adds: “The doll we play with, the friends we have – are just one dimension of body image .... Body image boils down to the way we perceive ourselves. The way others perceive us and how we feel living in our bodies.” 

For those considering buying one of these new Barbies for a child, Ressler urges them to consider “the delivery system.”

“Parents do not need to not be constantly making a point of something like weight,” Ressler says. “Is this a doll the child really wants and relates to or are you sending a message with the doll?”

But Teresa Tapp, fitness expert who worked as a trainer in the international modeling industry for over 18 years, says in an interview that the diversity addition is just as important a stride to celebrate as Barbie’s new shapes.

“I have witnessed how much body image and the need for body perfection can impact a person, especially those that are female,” Tapp says. “Seeing today's news about Mattel offering additional Barbie dolls with different body types, hair color and skin tone made me happy.”

The first time Mattel issued a diverse Barbie was “Colored Francie” in 1967.

Ms. Tapp adds, “I believe that diversity is divine and that everyone should strive to look and feel their personal best regardless of size or age. ‘Yes You Can’ Barbie!"

Mary Shomon, author of Thyroid Diet Revolution says in an e-mail that, “We grow up believing that a ‘beautiful body’ is tall and slender, with a tiny waist and large breasts. It's not just the typical Barbie doll. It's also the overwhelming images of ‘perfect’ women's bodies in the media.”

“This is the first change to the familiar Barbie we know,” Ms. Shomon says. “Other dolls have tried to present more realistic body types, but none as popular and iconic as Barbie.”

One example of a doll that may have led the charge toward more realistic body image icons is Lammily, created by Nickolay Lamm of Greenfield, Penn., in 2014 via a crowdfunding effort.

In a phone interview, Mr. Lamm says he is not concerned about Mattel’s new Barbie line cutting into his business, which produces realistically proportioned African-American and Caucasian dolls.

“I take it as a great compliment that Mattel followed us with both a realistic body shape and racial diversity,” says Lamm. “The more diversity in dolls the better. Lammily is her own person and girls love her for who she is.”

Shomon says, “This change may not single-handedly change attitudes, but it certainly will help young girls to play with dolls that reflect back a far more inclusive view of beauty.” 

Ressler has one lingering question, “Are they doing anything about Ken and his perfect hair and six-pack abs? Boys have body image issue too, you know.”

[Editor's note: The first name of a Florida body image expert was misspelled in the original version of this article. The Monitor regrets the error.]

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