You no doubt know by now that some new Barbies hit the market last week. The iconic dolls now come in petite, curvy, and tall shapes and also have a whole bunch of new skin tones and hair styles. As a lover of body diversity, I’m stoked on the new Barbie. But I’ve also been bracing myself for the inevitable backlash that happens whenever there’s a public conversation about women and weight.
Believe it or not, this time it hasn’t come.
Sure, there were the usual fat-shamers mouthing off, and Twitter trolls lambasting those “stupid SJWs” (as in, social justice warriors). But my deep dive into the social media chatter and press coverage found that an overwhelming majority of the reactions to the new dolls have been good, if not straight up effusive. So imagine my surprise at seeing in The Sun that “Barbie’s New Makeover Sparks Social Media Backlash.” Oh, wait, it hasn’t: The British tabloid had simply cobbled together a handful of pissy, random tweets looking for those sweet, sweet controversy clicks. In fact, a few media outlets are trying their damndest to find something negative to say about the new Barbie line. The Daily Mail had its own version of the “social media backlash” rando-tweet roundup, and then there was the conservative think tank blog TruthRevolt that cherry-picked lines from the Time cover story and weaved its own lame gotcha-style piece.
Even Quartz—a super respectable online news outlet created by folks behind The Atlantic—let an "ideas reporter" loose on the topic to write a clickable, counter-opinion op-ed. Sadly, in it, the writer poses no facts, no stats, and no actual arguments to support her headline that new Barbie "...will do nothing to empower our girls."
That made me sad, because I like facts. Do you like facts? How about informed opinions from actual experts? Yeah, you like those? OK, great, me too! So, here you go—here are three bite-size bits of factual, informed info about this Barbie doll evolution that you might want to know:
1. Decades of research suggest that children do receive messages about body image and identity from toys like Barbie dolls.
A British study from the mid-2000s, for instance, found that "girls exposed to Barbie reported lower body esteem and greater desire for a thinner body shape" than girls who were given larger-bodied dolls to play with, or no dolls at all. 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. Dittmar H, Halliwell E, Ive S. Developmental psychology, 2006, Aug.;42(2):0012-1649. "What people forget is all toys are educational to children, and girls learn what it means to be a girl through the toys they have,” Christia Spears Brown, Ph.D., told CNN. (She’s a psychologist at the University of Kentucky who focuses on at-risk children and social inequality.) “I don't think what Barbie looks like is a trivial issue,” she continued. “That's the message kids need to see, that people come in a range of sizes.”
2. Dolls are not always “just dolls”—play is practice for real life.
In a classic study from the mid-1990s, researchers crunched the numbers and determined that to attain the same body shape as classic Barbie, a healthy young adult woman would need to grow 2 feet in height, cut 6 inches from her waist, and balloon 5 inches in her bust. Distorting reality for children: body size proportions of Barbie and Ken dolls. Brownell KD, Napolitano MA. The International journal of eating disorders, 1996, Feb.;18(3):0276-3478. (To be like Ken, a guy would have to shoot up 20 inches and put on 11 inches of rock-hard chest muscle.) “Like adults,” the researchers summarized, “children are exposed to highly unrealistic ideals for shape and weight.”
Unfortunately, as Erica Weisgram, Ph.D, a developmental psychologist who studies gender and stereotypes at the University of Wisconsin, recently told CNN.: "We shouldn't look to dolls as role models, but we know that when kids are playing, they are enacting social roles. They are playing out what they might want to do in the future."
3. People naturally come in different shapes and sizes, yet negative stereotypes about people with larger bodies are truly rampant.
A 2014 study of preschoolers found that girls ascribed negative personality traits to fatter dolls and positive ones to thin dolls. Body-size stigmatization by preschool girls: in a doll's world, it is good to be "Barbie". Worobey J, Worobey HS. Body image, 2014, Jan.;11(2):1873-6807. By ages 3, 4, and 5, girls have already gotten the message that a larger body = a lesser person!
To speak to this last point, allow me to turn the mic over to Queen Latifah—a woman who’s lived much of her life in a “larger” body, a titan of industry, a talented woman who’s cool and beautiful and funny, and who I once briefly chatted with about food being stuck in our teeth in an elevator in NYC (best day ever): “I think this is groundbreaking. Barbie is iconic,” she told People. “Barbie to me is about as American as apple pie. To me it’s awesome for today’s young girls to play with a doll and see a little bit more of themselves in Barbie than I did when I was a kid, and I think it’s a very exciting thing.” (Give it to ‘em, Queen.)
Sunny Sea Gold is Greatist’s body image columnist and the author of Food: The Good Girl’s Drug—How to Stop Using Food to Control Your Feelings (Berkley Books, 2011). A health journalist by trade and training and a mom of two little girls, she’s also an advocate and educator focused on reducing the rates of childhood obesity and eating disorders by building Body-Positive Families.