Is Barbie Life More Realistic, Less 'Plastic', and Still Fantastic?

March 23, 2016

On Thursday, January 28, 2016, three new body types of Barbie began selling on Barbie.com, revolutionizing the Barbie industry and representing an adaptation to the diverse, more aware 21st century. These new Barbie dolls are part of the Fashionistas line that, in addition to the slender, original Barbie, include tall, petite, and curvy dolls. The 33 dolls of the line not only have 4 body types, but also 7 skin tones, 24 eye colors, and 24 hairstyles to further reflect diversity.

 

This transformation from the iconic, “perfect” Barbie has been developing throughout the past two years. For instance, in 2015, Mattel, the maker of Barbie, launched 23 dolls with 8 different skin tones, more than 12 hairstyles, and for the first time, bendable ankles for flat shoes. But the Fashionistas line is the first time in the doll’s 57-year history that Barbie is available beyond its unrealistically thin and busty frame.  

So why the sudden change? Mattel began the transition as a result of economic issues and years of criticism from the public. In 1959 at the New York City Toy Fair, the Barbie doll made its first appearance with the sales pitch that “through Barbie, the little girl could be anything she wants to be.” But this ideal falls short, as only 1 in every 100,000 women actually matches the Barbie body image. Several studies have shown a link between unrealistic body images in media and a greater risk for low-self esteem for little girls. A 2006 British study, “Does Barbie Make Girls Want to Be Thin? The Effect of Experimental Exposure to Images of Dolls on the Body Image of 5- to 8-Year-Old Girls”, discovered that “girls exposed to Barbie reported lower body esteem and greater desire for a thinner body shape” than those who were given dolls with larger bodies or no dolls at all. In addition, today one out of six children and adolescents in the United States are obese, and the majority of babies born are minorities.

 

Mattel realized the importance of recognizing the difference of today’s girls from those of the past and reflecting a “broader sense of beauty.” Also, the doll sales have plummeted throughout the last two years and gross sales decreased 15% in the first five months of 2015. The company’s stock price even decreased 43% since its peak in 2013 and Lego replaced the company as the most popular toy brand. As a result, the company hoped the new dolls would rejuvenate sales and popularity.

 

With any change, there is always a mix of supporters and haters. Despite knowing that there would be a repercussion of the new dolls, Mattel hoped that Barbie supporters would be happier and that criticizers, if not supporters, would become neutral. Reactions for the #TheDollEvolves campaign were seen all over the internet, especially Twitter. Through its Twitter account, Barbie showed its eagerness to “empower girls to explore their limitless potential.” In addition, people declared both their excitement and pride to buy the product and to see a doll that actually looks like them. Another user thanked Mattel for acknowledging that “women can be ‘Curvy,’ ‘Tall’ or ‘Petite’ & not just ‘Original’!”  

 

Despite all of this love and support, many people responded negatively to the new Barbies. Tweets expressed confusion as why anyone would want a Barbie that “isn’t thin” or why this transformation took so long. Even actress Kirstie Alley expressed negativity to this “unnecessary” change by tweeting “I’m glad I was raised in the 50’s when a doll was an object, not a role model, & boys could call me a cootie without going to the principal.” Still others thought Barbie didn’t change enough since the collection lacked a transgender Barbie or a “Barbie who vapes.” Users also called for a Ken transformation, some asking where #DadBod Ken was. Fashion shopping site Lyst designed more realistic Ken dolls in response, including “Beach DadBod Ken,” “Balding Ken,” and “Bearded Hipster Ken.”

 

Saint Ursula Academy students also had their own opinions on the matter. Abby Galloway ’18 commented, “Personally, I think this is a good thing.  Many of the 'perfect' body image characteristics, the thigh gap for example, are embodied in the original Barbie doll.  I had hundreds of Barbies when I was younger [and] I can recall coveting their perfectly slender legs or long blonde hair.” She also pointed out the effects of this change for present and future generations: “Though today's generation of girls may still be affected by the seemingly contagious need for the ideal super thin body because they are just now having the new dolls introduced to them, the following generations will not remember a time when there was only the ‘original’ Barbie.  Little girls’ collections of Barbies will be diverse especially if Mattel continues on with this idea, and [these girls] will therefore grow up to be more positive about their own image and that of others' in their society.” Another student, Maddie Gerding ’18 had a different view on the matter. “I think it's great that more people can be portrayed and those who play with Barbies can have a more ‘realistic’ collection. However, I feel that people should remember that Barbie is just a doll, and dolls are used to play make believe. I don't disagree with the new Barbies because I think they would be really fun to play with, but I do think some people need to calm down because there are bigger things to worry about. Cabbage Patch Kids for example: are they realistic? Heck No!”

 

Finally, children, the targeted audience of the brand, also had varying reactions. Research was conducted by Time reporter Eliana Dockterman during which she watched little girls play with the new Barbie dolls and their reactions. Dockterman watched behind one-way glass as a 6-year-old picked up the curvy dolls and said “Hello, I’m a fat person, fat, fat, fat,” but later called the doll “a little chubbier” when an adult entered the room. Some of these girls even picked up the curvy dolls and laughed at them. These disturbing results depict just how distorted one’s perception of beauty and body image can become even at such a young age. Other studies conducted showed that kids cared more about the Barbie’s style than the doll’s bodies. Amber Jamieson of “The Guardian” asked kids between 2-8 years old to describe their reaction to the dolls (http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/feb/13/new-barbie-dolls-fashionista-what-kids-think). One girl admitted she liked the blue-haired Curvy Barbie because of her sunglasses. Another young girl liked the same doll because of her blue hair and pink belt, since pink is her favorite color. The study conductors also had the kids play with the naked dolls. One 4-year-old spotted the varying hair colors as the only difference between the original and Curvy dolls. Another girl of the same age picked up at the Curvy doll and pointed at her thighs saying “this one is stronger.” Many kids liked the new Barbies because, as a result of the new hair colors and ethnicities, the dolls look more like the kids. Furthermore, one girl said she liked the new Barbies over the old because “they’re funner” and “look like people that walk down the street.”

 

Regardless of whether the new Fashionistas Barbie line will make a difference in one’s perception of body image, or if this change was even necessary, the new dolls have definitely grabbed the attention of kids, women, and men all over.

 

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