Martina M. Cartwright

Martina M. Cartwright Ph.D., R.D.

Food For Thought

Barbie: Blacklist or Buy This Black Friday?

Six toy categories that build girls' self-esteem and creativity.

Posted Nov 23, 2013

Next week, hordes of consumers will pack stores in search of mega deals to fulfill the holiday wishes of tiny tots. This year, no single toy has emerged as a “must have.” Instead, Santa has been bombarded with requests for Legos, cars, bikes, and of course, Barbie. The most famous doll in the world has been in the top 10 of Christmas gifts since her introduction in 1959. According to a National Retail Federation survey, 26% of shoppers said Barbies would be their primary purchase for girls. In recent years, Barbie has taken a lot of heat for being “too sexy” or promoting “poor self esteem” in girls, but is there any truth to this?

In a 2006 research study entitled “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” 162 girls from 5-8 years of age were shown picture book images of either Barbie dolls, Emme dolls (size 16) or no dolls and then asked to complete assessments of body image. Girls shown the story with Barbie as the main character reported lower body esteem and greater desire for a thinner body shape than girls in the other exposure conditions. However, this immediate negative impact of Barbie doll wasn’t seen in the oldest girls. The authors state that the findings imply that early exposure to dolls epitomizing an unrealistically thin body may damage girls' body image.

The desire for thinness emerges in girls around age 6 and research suggests that repeated exposure to multiple sexualized images can negatively impact girls’ self image. For example, if a little girl’s toy box is packed only with dolls that don heavy makeup, short skirts and high heels, then her body image may take a hit if she’s also regularly exposed to television and media images that glamorize unrealistic ideas of beauty.

So what toys can parents, or Santa, purchase to encourage skill building, confidence and self-esteem in girls?

Baby dolls, Go! Go! Sports Girls, and American Girl Dolls: Experts suggest baby dolls teach responsibility, values, and empathy. Go! Go! Sports Girls are an awarding winning line of dolls that promote healthy eating habits and physical activity. The founder, Jodi Norgaard says her own involvement with sports and her daughter inspired the age-appropriate, body proportioned sports-themed dolls. A portion of the sales goes to charities that share Ms. Norgaard’s mission and message. American Girl Dolls encourage friendship, creative play and a love of history. 

Art projects: Artistic endeavors boost creativity and sense of accomplishment. Crayons and plain paper, Play Doh and other siimple projects keep kids engaged and active.

Detective kits, blocks, cars, puzzles and memory games: These toys teach independent thought, logic, observation and spatial skills. Such skills are the foundation of science, engineering and critical thinking.

Sporting equipment: Balls, mini basketball goals, jump ropes and the like encourage physical activity, movement, gross motor skills and balance.

Music, musical toys and books: These stimulate listening and verbal skills.

Kitchen sets, tea sets, dress up, puppets…and Barbie: Creative play that encourages role-playing boosts imagination and social skills.

Gift givers concerned about girls' self-esteem may be troubled by the message Barbie sends about body image, but there is no reason to banish Barbie from your Holiday Shopping List. Toys do have an impact on girls’ self-image, but the key is limiting media images and providing a variety of toys that encourage active, healthy play.

Happy Holidays!

Fun Facts:

Over 99% of American girls between 3 to 10 years old own at least one Barbie.

If Barbie were real, she’d have a 39 -inch bust, 18-inch waist, and 33- inch hips. She would wear size 3 stilettos and weigh 110 pounds.


Dittmar H et al. 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. Developmental Psychology. 2006;42(2):283-292.

Worobey J. Barbie at 50: maligned but benign? Eat Weight Disord 2009; 14(4):e219-224.


About the Author

Martina M. Cartwright

Martina M. Cartwright, Ph.D., R.D., is an adjunct professor of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Arizona and an independent biomedical consultant.

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