The Barbie Blues?

In the last three decades, the humble Barbie doll has come in for a lot of criticism. While many feminist researchers have suggested that Barbie represents an unattainable body ideal that damages girls’ self-esteem, the doll’s defenders have argued that Barbie is, after all, “just a toy” and is unlikely to create any lasting psychological effects.

What is indisputable, however, is that the Barbie’s body dimensions are very far outside the “normal” range. In a [2003] study, Urla and Swedlund calculated that if Barbie were full size, her measurements would be 32-17- 28, typical of a woman suffering from anorexia. Add to this anorexic frame her large gravity-defying breasts and you have a body ideal that is virtually impossible for a healthy, non-surgically altered woman to attain.  

Although it is unlikely that children playing with Barbies consciously compare their own bodies to those of their dolls, it would be naïve to assume that they do not pick up on the powerful messages embodied by this cultural icon. Among these messages we might include the following:

  • The ideal female body is stick-thin and big-breasted.
  • The natural, healthy female body is unattractive.
  • To be attractive and popular, girls and women must have well-disciplined bodies, meticulously groomed hair and make-up, and a carefully coordinated and fully accessorized wardrobe. (Subtext:  Spend, spend spend! Diet, diet, diet! And live at the gym if you have to!)
  • And, perhaps the overriding message: Girls and women are judged more on how they look, than on what they do. Although Mattel has introduced some career-themed Barbies in recent years, the fashion-oriented dolls (along with the bride and princess) are the perennial best-sellers.

It is difficult to measure any negative psychological or behavioral effects that early and intense exposure to such messages may have. Such measurement is difficult primarily because such messages are so pervasive in our culture today. Summer (1996: 14) noted of fashion advertising, for instance, the prevalence of “concentration-camp-thin models with pasty complexions sporting blackened eyes, limp hair, and designer outfits.” However, with 80% of 10-year-old girls now dieting to control their weight, and most American women struggling daily to make their bodies conform to unrealistic ideals, few could argue that Barbie and her kind contribute to the development of positive body image among girls and women.