Life in plastic: Barbie’s look gets a facelift

By Madison Teuscher

Six Barbie dolls with diverse bodies and skin tones. From left to right, a petite dark-skinned doll, a tall red-haired doll, a curvy doll with blue hair, a tall Asian doll, a curvy blonde doll, and a petite brunette doll.
Barbie’s new line of dolls includes diverse body shapes, facial structures, and skin tones.

Barbie’s world just got a little more inclusive. The new Barbie “Fashionista” line features three new body types, 22 hair styles, 18 eye colors, 23 hair colors, eight different skin tones, and 14 facial structures. The initiative seeks to better represent the diverse definitions of beauty.

The decision to redesign the classic Barbie body was not only motivated by a desire to represent a wider range of women and girls, but also Barbie’s plummeting sales. The debut of Hasbro’s Elsa doll from the film “Frozen” surpassed Barbie as the most popular girl’s toy. Even during the holiday season, Barbie’s sales fell by 13 percent. With the ever-changing social landscape and sales plummeting, Mattel, Barbie’s parent company, decided it was time for fresh ideas. The project to revamp Barbie’s body was kept under tight lock and key. Code-named Project Dawn, the project was kept secret from even the spouses of the designers. Among Barbie’s new bodies, a Game Developer Barbie, the Spy Squad line, and a President and Vice President duo will be rolling out this year.

Barbie has been a symbol of beauty and femininity since her debut in 1959. The doll’s inventor, Ruth Handler, wanted to create a doll that allowed young girls to envision their futures. Barbie’s impressive 130 careers range from teacher to astronaut, to Olympic athlete to president. The iconic doll was designed to teach women what is expected of them in society, though in some cases, the messages weren’t empowering to women. In 1965, Mattel released “Slumber Party Barbie,” complete with a book on how to lose weight and a bathroom scale permanently set to 110 pounds. What’s more, the only advice in the diet book was, “don’t eat”. In 1992, Mattel released a Teen-Talk Barbie which included pre-programmed phrases like “Math class is tough”.

A blonde Barbie doll in a bikini stands next to a dark-haired Barbie in a bikini
Tropical Barbie and Miko, released in 1994.

It is hard to deny that these dolls—toys though they may be—sent very strong messages about how women should act, and who they should be. Barbie’s legacy seems to be torn between an empowering “you can do anything” attitude, and some harmful ideas about girls’ bodies and futures. While Mattel has tried to market Barbie as a consummate feminist who inspires girls to achieve, her famous “bombshell blonde” figure has always outshined her business suits. What makes Barbie iconic is her long blonde hair, effortlessly perky bust, waifish waist, and eternally long legs. Barbie is defined by her impossible plastic perfection.

In addition to the doll’s controversial history, Barbie’s highly disproportionate body has come under intense attack and scrutiny in the past several years. Studies show that it is physically impossible for any woman to achieve these proportions. In a life-size representation of Barbie’s body ratios, her tiny ankles and feet would require that she walk on all fours, and she is so thin for her height that she does not have enough room for her internal organs. Her head-to-neck ratio would leave a human-sized version of the doll unable to lift her own head. What does it say about our society’s views of beauty when the most iconic doll of all time has completely impossible proportions?

Many people have spoken out against the new Barbie dolls, saying that Barbie is only a doll, and isn’t meant to be a role model. However, scientific evidence refutes this opinion. In a 2006 study, researchers exposed girls aged 5 to 8 to either Barbie dolls, Emme dolls (a US size 16) or no dolls at all. The group of girls exposed to the Barbie dolls reported “lower self esteem and greater desire for a thinner body” than girls in the other two groups. The study goes on to describe that early exposure to dolls with unrealistically thin body ideals can negatively impact girls’ body images long term.

As Americans show increased celebration of diverse bodies and ideals of beauty, it is only appropriate that the famous doll reflects these patterns of acceptance. Mattel’s new line of dolls recognizes that there is beauty in what makes us different. I view many women in my life as beautiful: teachers, coworkers, mothers, peers, aunts, grandmothers, mentors. Some of them are short, some are tall; some are curvy, some are petite; some are people of color and some are white. What unites these women is their passion, drive, intelligence, compassion and vibrancy.

In a video released by the Barbie YouTube channel following the release of the new dolls, one of the girls playing with the new dolls says, “I like them because this one looks like me, and this one looks like my mom.” With a big smile and missing front teeth, another girl comments that a doll looks like her friend. At its simplest level, these new dolls give girls representations of the beautiful women in their lives—their mothers, their friends, and themselves.


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