Can Barbie Help to Teach Self-Care?
A mental health perspective of Barbie's new wellness line.
Posted February 7, 2020 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
Barbie has been a common childhood toy for over six decades. When Barbie is considered, most people can immediately envision her quintessential image.
For some, Barbie is just a familiar face associated with childhood play. For others, she has been noted as a poor representation of beauty standards and gender roles that can affect young, innocent minds. As the latter notion gained attention in recent decades, Mattel faced a decline in sales.
Since then, Barbie has been reinventing herself by including diverse body types and careers. Now, she's trying self-care too. Mattel has released a new line of dolls designed to teach girls as young as 3 years old "the benefits of self-care through play."
This line has been received with mixed responses, ranging from whether these nine dolls could be helpful for educating children about wellness, or whether they are simply another ploy to boost sales by latching on to what's trending. As a mental health therapist, educator, and advocate, I can relate to having a lot of swirling thoughts within this spectrum. From the perspective of mental wellness, let's take a look at what may or may not be helpful about this new line.
Before we can delve into whether or not Mattel can achieve the goal of teaching children about self-care, we have to take a moment to address the definition of self-care.
Self-care is the practice of recognizing and tending to your needs. Our needs are based on the assessment of our wellness. Considering the different domains of wellness (mental, social, physical, financial, etc.) and how they change over time, self-care is a continuous, integrated process that we all need in order to foster presence, engagement, and overall wellness.
Neglecting your needs comes with consequences. For example, you may notice increases in anxiety, distractibility, anger, and fatigue. You may also experience decreases in sleep, relationship satisfaction, self-esteem, empathy, and compassion. Ongoing exposure to stress without proper self-care can increase the risk of serious health consequences, such as depression and heart problems.
Here's what could be helpful...
Before going into the details of the line, the mere attempt to include a self-care line can be beneficial as it creates wider discourse. Self-care is often neglected because its importance is minimized at different ages across the lifespan. Quality aside, the line highlights the notion that we can teach young children how to recognize and communicate their needs.
While it is the obligation of the guardian to care for the child, it is helpful when a child is able to understand and communicate needs. Additionally, when fostered early in life, this awareness can be built upon more easily in later years. Whether or not a parent chooses to purchase one of these nine dolls, the existence of the line itself may help to prompt guardians to consider what is developmentally appropriate to introduce to a child about self-care, and how they can take an engaged role in beginning to teach that lesson.
Including multiple methods
Self-care is not a singular skill, and self-care preferences may vary from person to person. One positive aspect of this line is that it does include more than one dimension of wellness and includes options with them realms of relaxation and exercise. This can be helpful to demonstrate that there are multiple ways to take care of yourself.
In addition, it aligns with the concept that our needs may change. Some days, you may feel energetic, and other days you may require more rest. These messages help to take a slight shift from the image-conscious Barbie. Nevertheless, while it is good that there is not simply a focus on one type of self-care, it is clear that relaxation is emphasized, and this line would have benefited from adding several other options for self-care that are developmentally appropriate (e.g., coloring, painting).
The role of play in learning and development
The joy of play has been widely acknowledged across the globe. While often seen as child's play, research has highlighted the biological drive is integral to development and health across the lifespan. Although play could be helpful throughout one's lifetime, play in early development helps children to develop essential emotional, cognitive, social, and physical skills that provide a foundation that lasts well into adulthood.
With this being said, it's important to recognize play as an important medium for learning. Through play, children come to learn about the world around them through exploration, imagination, and creativity. If we want to teach young children self-care, roleplay through free or guided play can help to accomplish that task. In addition, developmentally speaking, a child under the age of 7 would likely learn this easier via play compared to adult-like methods such as reading or discussing.
The introduction to meditation
While you might think meditation is for adults, children can certainly practice and benefit from meditation as well. Meditation is sometimes referred to as retraining your brain; hence, in some ways, it may be easier to learn as a child. Children who practice meditation tend to show improvements in concentration and decreases in emotional reactivity and anxiety. One of the nine dolls in this new line was created in collaboration with Headspace in an effort to "raise awareness around nurturing overall emotional well-being through mindfulness exercises."
The Breathe with me comes with four cloud emojis that can help children foster emotional awareness. Since emotional well-being is a part of overall wellness, this lesson can help to promote self-care by assessing emotional states and discerning how to cope through imaginative play. This doll comes with a necklace that, when clicked, prompts the child through a guided meditation.
This may seem intimidating, especially for guardians who are unfamiliar with mindfulness-based meditation; however, as a part of the partnership, Headspace offers a video of Barbie using one of the meditations and a list of helpful tips for parents and kids.
Here's where there may be a few concerns...
The Sales Tactic
Without a doubt, self-care is a concept that has been trending within recent years, and Mattel is not the first major corporation to jump on board in an effort to boost sales. However, the notion that the company has released the line as a marketing maneuver rather than for the proclaimed agenda to foster wellness is a rather sad thought to consider. Additionally, it feeds into the notion that self-care is merely a sales scam.
While it's good that self-care is being discussed more across various platforms, the plethora of advertisements linking purchase incentives to self-care tends to skew the notion that self-care must be bought. When this perspective goes too far, it can become elitist in the sense that only a certain you require a certain echelon to be able to practice self-care.
As noted earlier, the line does encompass more than one method of self-care; however, there are still a few issues with the method highlighted. Even putting the cost of the doll aside, most of the encouraged methods that are modeled would require an additional cost when applied to the real world. While it would go against the accessory process since roleplay and modeling are potential ways for the wellness line to convey self-care lessons, it could have been helpful to include more methods that do not require an incremental cost (e.g., breathing techniques, stretching).
It is quite difficult to miss the emphasis on spa-related self-care. Not only is this a stereotypical self-care practice, but it is not the most relatable for a young girl. For years, Barbie has been critiqued for adultifying children, and this line may do just that. If we are aiming to teach age-appropriate self-care, are eyemasks, magazines, and candles the best way to do so?
Discussion and connection
While self-care is being discussed more than ever before, it's quite clear that confusion about what it is and why it matters is still common. Each doll description in the wellness line refers to self-care, but a definition of self-care is missing altogether. While the Breath with me doll does have a corresponding guided meditation and a list of helpful tips, the overall line would have benefited from an overview for guardians.
Beyond the what and why, it could have been helpful to explore the how for parents. While the children could explore free or prompted play, methods for the parents to engage with their children and link these lessons could have been helpful. Even without this offering, parents who purchase these dolls may benefit from considering having a developmentally-appropriate conversation about self-care to maximize the benefits explored via play.
Do the pros outweigh the cons?
Barbie has been criticized for influencing young girls' perceptions of beauty standards. Research has shown that this impact may affect girls as young as preschool. Whether intended to be a standard of beauty or not, that is often the message that is received.
However, the standard Barbie is disproportionate to an average-sized woman, and scholars have even highlighted that the figure may be unrealistic. As aforementioned, Mattel has been working to reinvent the brand with the addition of new body types. However, in a study of girls between the ages of 6-14, it was noted that the inclusion of other body types might not be as helpful as it seems since participants tended to rate the curvy Barbie as least desirable.
Beyond the image, Barbie has been critiqued for perpetuating negative gender roles. It's obvious that Mattel tries to emphasize the role of diverse careers to quell feedback regarding Barbie's gender roles. In a timeline presented to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Barbie, the launching of career lines is highlighted as a milestone from the 1960s. In the recent decade, diverse careers have been added, such as entomologist, judge, news anchor, and robotics engineer.
However, the line still faces flack about whether they perpetuate biased views of gender. In a study of girls aged 4-6, participants were randomly assigned to play with either a fashion-oriented Barbie, a career-oriented Barbie, or a Mrs. Potato Head. After a few minutes of play, the girls were asked questions about what careers they could do. Participants who played with Barbie thought they could do fewer jobs compared to boys; however, those who played with Mrs. Potato Head reported nearly the same number of potential careers for themselves when compared to boys.
Essentially, there is research exploring not only traditional Barbies but also the influence of the efforts that have been incorporated to respond to the feedback that Barbie skews perceptions of beauty and gender. While the efforts are notable, they may not be making enough of an impact to moderate for the messages young girls are receiving. Considering this new line, regardless of the lessons that could be gained pertaining to self-care, they may not come without the messages that have been noted as toxic for decades.
It is hard to deny that Mattel is trying to change Barbie's negative associations by adding more inclusivity and empowerment throughout their lines. Instead of using this exploration as an investigation of the line's genuine intention, the pros and cons were specifically explored through the lens factors related to mental well-being. As you glance through and consider your own view, you may be able to derive your own conjecture whether Mattel can possibly accomplish its goal of teaching self-care.