Barbie, the much-maligned poster-doll for those who worry about young girls’ body image, recently celebrated her 60th birthday. The doll has been a resounding triumph for toy-maker Mattel, generating over $3 billion in sales since its introduction in 1959. Despite Barbie's economic success, Mattel has received well-earned criticism for decades about the doll’s contribution to unrealistic and unhealthy beauty ideals.
One analysis suggests that if Barbie were a real woman, her size and shape would leave her with only half a liver and a few inches of intestine, and she'd be relegated to crawling on all fours, incapable of lifting her gigantic head on her uber-slender neck. A 1960s version of Barbie even came with a diet guidebook containing simple advice for young girls: “Don’t eat.”
In 2016, Mattel released the “Fashionista” line of Barbie dolls, featuring, for the first time, a slightly more varied set of body shapes. One of the dolls in this set is described as “curvy,” suggesting Mattel might be responding to parents clamoring for more diverse and realistic Barbie bodies. But newly published research casts doubt on whether young girls will actually welcome a curvier Barbie. Instead, interactions between girls and the curvy Barbie have provided a lesson in how anti-fat bias is internalized by children at an early age.
Researchers have established that girls as young as 3 show a bias in favor of thin bodies. For example, one earlier study found that 3-to-5-year-old girls shown line drawings of children ranging from thin to fat were more likely to describe the fatter drawing as a girl who was mean, ugly, sloppy, and loud. And they were more likely to identify the thin drawing as a girl who was nice, cute, smart, and had a lot of friends. However, Barbie dolls are significantly less abstract than line drawings, and unlike simple drawings, the dolls are aspirational for many girls.
In the recent Barbie-focused study, researchers led by Jennifer Harriger at Pepperdine University investigated how an ethnically diverse sample of girls between the ages of 3 and 10 (76 percent of whom indicated that they had at least one Barbie doll of their own) would respond to the new Barbie body shapes. Each girl was presented with four Barbies in random order, one representing each shape in the new line — original, tall, petite, and curvy. Curvy Barbie has a slightly rounded stomach, thicker legs, and no “thigh gap.” But the term curvy is a bit misleading. While not emaciated-looking like the original Barbie, she’s still quite thin, likely a US size 4 or 6. The “tall” Barbie has longer legs and is as thin (if not thinner) than the original. The “petite” version of Barbie is shorter, but still thin, with an hourglass shape. For this study, all of the Barbies had the same hair and face, and were dressed in identical bikinis. [At left, see a picture of the lineup from the researchers.]
The researchers asked each girl to point to the Barbie she thought was “happy, smart, has friends, pretty, helps others, sad, not smart, has no friends, not pretty, and mean.” The girls also selected which doll they would most like to play with and indicated whether there was a doll they would not want to play with.
Overall, girls were clearly biased in favor of the thinnest bodies. Over half selected the curvy Barbie as the one who was not pretty. She was also their top choice for the Barbie who has no friends and the least likely to be selected for the adjectives happy, smart, and pretty. Only 6 percent of girls selected curvy Barbie as the one they would like to play with. Notably, when asked why they would not want to play with her, at least 25 percent of the girls said it was because curvy Barbie was fat, chubby, or "big."
The tendency to idealize thin bodies and show negative attitudes toward fatter bodies has implications for how children treat each other. But children who show weight bias also tend to have higher levels of depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. In other words, whether we’re talking about Barbie bodies or human bodies, there is a long list of good reasons to encourage children to accept and respect the diversity of bodies they will encounter throughout their lives.