Is Barbie Bad For Body Image?

BY Zali Yager

There’s a new Barbie movie coming (in 2023)…
Cue panic by all of the parents who know that their kids will be bugging them to see it, but are worried about the damage for their body image.

Many parents ask me about Barbie.
And back when I didn’t have kids, and thought I could control such things, younger me was just like “well I won’t be letting my or kids watch Barbie shows, have Barbie stuff, or play with Barbies”. Fast forward 10 years, and my kids- especially my twin girls (now 7) definitely watch Barbie shows, have Barbie stuff, and play with Barbies.

So is Barbie Bad for Body image?
Launched in 1959, named after the inventor’s daughter Barbara, and owned by 99% of 3-10 year old girls in the USA, Barbie has been a popular request on young girls’ Christmas wish lists for 55 years. And Barbie has been blamed for causing body image issues and even eating disorders for over 50 years as well.

A Matter of Proportions

It’s not hard to see why- Barbie’s body shape is unrealistic. Researchers have reminded us that her proportions would occur in less than 1 in 100,000 adult women, that her waist is 20 cm smaller than a reference group of anorexic patients, and with these proportions, she would not be capable of menstruation.

The doll’s creator, Mattel, claims that the proportions were created for the ease of dressing and undressing the doll, not replicating the realistic size and shape of an adult woman. However, there is no such rationale for the very thin representation of Barbie in her TV show, movies, books, and range of online games. In all forms, Barbie represents a completely unattainable figure for adult women.

Learning through play

Body image is a complex psychological construct, and we are yet to fully understand how body image, or body dissatisfaction develops in very young children. We do know that children learn by observing, absorbing, and imitating the things that they see around them, and that their early ideas about weight and appearance are shaped by their family, their peers and the media. Children’s media is known to perpetuate stereotypical messages about weight, beauty, and appearance; the ‘good’ characters are beautiful, and the ‘bad’ ones are ugly, heavier characters have few friends, and are less happy than the thinner ones.

Research with 3-5 year olds indicates that they already clearly associate larger figure sizes with more negative characteristics, such as being naughty and mean. This also has the effect of reinforcing the importance of thinness in women- a known risk factor for body dissatisfaction and eating disorders.

Research about Barbie

Relatively few studies have specifically evaluated the impact of Barbie on young girls. One experimental study with 5-8 year olds in the UK evaluated the impact of viewing images of Barbie (US size 2), Emme (US size 16) or neutral images that did not involve dolls, while listening to a simple story. The girls who viewed the images of Barbie had significantly lower scores on the Body Esteem scale after being exposed to the images, and indicated a preference for a thinner current body, and a thinner adult body. Subsequent research that has asked young girls to actually play with Barbie dolls, or control toys, has found no immediate negative impact on body image.

But what about the long-term effects? Researchers have conducted studies where they asked adult women about their current body image and eating behaviours, and how much they played with Barbie as a child. Women who reported that they played with Barbies more than others had a higher conformity to feminine norms in adulthood- in particular a higher focus on appearance. However, no studies have found a link between playing with Barbie as a child, and adult body image and disordered eating behaviours, leaving the researchers to conclude that Barbie is ‘maligned but benign’.

Should we Ban Barbie?

So what does all of this mean for us as parents?

I’ve decided that we don’t need to panic too much about the actual dolls. Buying kids the latest Barbie doll doesn’t seem like it is going to do any harm, particularly in the context of all of the other toys that they own, that hopefully have more diverse and realistic body sizes.

But we do need to be more careful with the Barbie picture books, colouring books, Barbie TV show, and maybe, the Barbie movie. When our kids watch these shows and look at these images, it seems to have a stronger influence than playing with the dolls. Seeing these characters with really unrealistic shapes and sizes does convey subtle societal messages about how we should look to be ‘acceptable’ and ‘attractive’. We can’t protect young people from all of this, but we can try to make sure that these messages are mixed in with other things, and we can teach them how to critique it.

If your kids really want Barbie stuff, it’s ok, as long as they have other stuff as well. And when they get old enough, you can start to ask questions about why they like things, why they think the characters look like that, who might be making decisions about how they look, and why they might have created the characters to look this way.

Helping them put on the (bright Barbie-pink coloured- of course) glasses to critique some of these images and messages might just protect them from being too influenced by the whole Barbie world.

Meet The Author,
Zali Yager

Dr Zali Yager is the Executive Director of The Embrace Collective [TEC], a DGR-status health promotion charity on a mission to help people everywhere build better body image. In her research position as Associate Professor in the Institute for Health and Sport at Victoria University, Zali was also the Chief Investigator on the Goodform project for boys, a WADA-funded, randomised controlled trial of this 4-session school-based program.Connect with Zali via LinkedInInstagram and her website. Find out more about The Embrace Collective on Instagram. Sign up for the EK Support Squad to receive body image resources and support for young people.
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