When my daughter was young, I did not allow her to play with Barbies. If she got a Barbie doll as a birthday gift (which happened every year for several years), I’d take her to Target and let her exchange the Barbie for something else. She wasn’t thrilled with me then, and she still complains about the “no Barbies rule” even now that she’s long past the age of being interested in playing with Barbie dolls.
In fact, I had a strict “no Barbie and no guns rule.” But it was hard to be strict. Did a water gun count?
What about watching a cartoon about Barbie? Still, I clung to this rule like a parent who learns that there are so few rules in parenting clings to a rule. Because that is what I was, a parent with ideals that were slowly being chipped away by the practicalities of raising two small children while trying to grow a career, keep a household from falling apart, and get around six hours of sleep per night.
I’m sure that if I did something else for a living, the one rule I would’ve settled on as nonnegotiable would’ve been something entirely different. Still, it wasn’t an arbitrary rule in that there are a number of studies that have examined Barbie’s effect on body image.
First, there is a classic study published in 1995 in The International Journal of Eating Disorders that determined the changes (in inches) required for a woman to approximate Barbie’s figure. Using hip measurements as a constant, a woman would need to be 24 inches taller, increase their neck by 3.2 inches in length, and increase their chests by 5 inches, all while decreasing their waist by 6 inches.
A study published in 2006 found that 5-8-year-old girls who played with Barbies in an experiment desired thinner bodies than girls who did not. The experimental “Barbie body image effect” didn’t persist when the older girls in the sample were re-tested, but the researchers still cautioned that “early exposure to dolls epitomizing an unrealistically thin body ideal may damage girls’ body image.”
A more recent study indicated that even viewing a picture of Barbie seemed to increase girls’ preferences for thin figures. This study also considered the consequences of girls seeing or playing with an actual Barbie. Although body dissatisfaction didn’t decrease following any of the experimental conditions, preferences for thin figures did increase.
If you’re thinking, but what about the new Barbies? The ones that are more diverse in body size and shape? Well, researchers have studied them as well. In fact, in one study, girls were found to prefer the original, tall, and petite Barbie dolls to the curvy Barbie, which they least wanted to play with. In another study, girls liked the petite Barbie the best (not exactly a win for body positivity). In an article published this year, Barbie Made to Move® was also reported to negatively affect body image (compared to Lego Friends), even though her more flexible form was presumably created to empower girls.
And yet, it turns out my daughter was among the minority of girls who didn’t play with Barbies (at least not in our house; she assures me she played with them every chance she got elsewhere). About 90 percent of 3-10-year-old girls own a Barbie, and in the U.S., 3-6-year-old girls tend to have about a dozen Barbies each.
Still, when the Barbie movie came out (and I learned that Greta Gerwig was directing), I couldn’t help but break the “no Barbie rule.” This past weekend, my 16-year-old daughter and I went to see the Barbie movie together. The movie included a more explicit taking on of the patriarchy than I had expected. There was a monologue by America Ferrera that begins, “It is literally impossible to be a woman,” that had me nodding in agreement. There were a few moments I laughed out loud and a few others that left me surprised to feel somewhat emotional. It turns out that Barbie in this movie is not perfect or ideal, but actually somewhat complicated—just like real women.
I would not say that Barbie falls amongst my favorite movies, but it did lend itself to a mature discussion of gender roles, relationships, body image, and how far we’ve really come (or haven’t) on the car ride home. And that is nearly enough to make me go buy my daughter a Barbie doll.