Barbie, a Meditation Teacher?

Barbie's newest incarnation

Posted Mar 08, 2020

 When I read that Barbie, the most popular toy in history, had become a meditation teacher I had to pay attention. One colleague quipped, “How can a doll without a mind become mindful?” I was skeptical as well. Mattel, the toymaker, teamed up with the app Headspace to create meditations for young children. Was this another way to make a buck as mindfulness becomes increasingly mainstream, or are young girls acquiring useful life skills as they play with their dolls?

Barbie was invented by Ruth Handler in 1959. Modeled after a German sex toy named Lilli with a voluptuous body and over-sized bust, originally a gag gift at bachelor parties, it is easy to be cynical. When Handler introduced the doll at a toy fair, she was laughed out of the room by her male competitors who insisted that nobody would want to play with a doll with breasts. They were wrong. The doll sold out across the country. Even after all these years, one doll is sold every three seconds. Barbie has been the most discussed, analyzed and criticized doll in history. M.G. Lord, a Barbie biographer (really) commented that she was designed “to teach women what—for better or worse—is expected of them in society.”

In the 1960s there was a backlash against Barbie. One Barbie was sold with a diet book that recommended: “Don’t eat.” A group called the Barbie Liberation Organization switched out the voice box for Barbie and GI Joe. Suddenly Barbie was saying “Vengeance is mine” while the warrior cooed, “Let’s plan our dream wedding.”

While Mattel argues that the doll is marketed as an independent woman with a career of her own, not burdened by domesticity, it does seem that Barbie has had an impact on how girls see their bodies. One research study in Developmental Psychology in 2006 found that girls who were exposed to Barbie at a young age were more likely to develop greater concerns with being thin.

Given that almost every American woman has owned a Barbie, she has become something of a Rorschach test. She has traveled to space, become a surgeon, and been set on fire by feminists. She even ran for President three times—no wonder she needs to meditate!

Wondering what this new incarnation could teach young girls, in the name of research I ordered a “Breathe with Me” Barbie. Dressed in leisure-wear pants with puffy clouds and a T-shirt with a rainbow, Barbie had been given a breast reduction and plastic surgery. Gone were the iconic high heels—this Barbie was seated barefoot in lotus position.

As I pressed her necklace to listen to the assorted meditations, Barbie’s bust lit up with an array of colors, like a disco ball. While there are many good meditations for children that help them learn emotional regulation and the skills of mindfulness, the ones that Barbie guides are more focused on light and sound than content. However, for parents who want to help their children work with worrisome thoughts, difficult feelings and increase kindness and gratitude, Barbie has a website shared with Headspace

As I think back and recall playing with Barbie with my friends, I remember our play being organized around clothes and consumption—competing over who owned more new outfits or accessories. I wonder what it would be like if young children could play together and learn how to settle and relax, or send each other kindness and appreciation. Now that would truly be a new incarnation.