The New Curvy Barbie Dolls: What They Tell Us About Being Overweight

Mattel's new Curvy Barbies are a big leap from the special edition "Slumber Party" Barbie of the mid- 1960s that came equipped with a tiny plastic scale (set at 110 pounds) and a diet book. They're also far from the Barbie featured in the 2014 50th Anniversary Swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated. Critics at the time complained that by featuring the Barbie doll, the magazine was objectifying women and making women feel that only thin and svelte was beautiful.

Now, many people are seeing the new Curvy Barbies as an antidote to all that social pressure for young girls and adult women to feel they must have a figure that fits an ideal. The dolls are intended to reflect the diversity of body shapes of real women -- and the hope is that this will make children more accepting of their own bodies and the body shapes of others -- and might help counter negative attitudes about overweight people.

This all sounds good but some observers have pointed out that the new Curvy Barbies are not really mirrors of overweight women and like traditional Barbies, are still prettified: The Barbies will have thicker thighs, and broader hips -- but will still look attractive in their specially designed fashionista clothes to fit their broader shape. Emily L. Newman, a professor at Texas A&M University -- Commerce whose research is on female body images, has said about the dolls, "I would never look at that Barbie and think she's overweight." With her heftier thighs and hips, Curvy Barbie even "looks more feminine in some ways."

There are some strong disagreements about the impact of Barbies and similar dolls. Some researchers have argued that it's foolish to blame mothers for shaping their daughters' attitudes toward obesity -- it's children's toys like the original Barbie dolls with their idealized bodies that can have a major negative impact. Three British academic researchers writing in Developmental Psychology in 2006 wrote that early exposure to dolls like Barbie "may damage a girl's body image" which could lead to an increased risk of eating disorders.

Others, like Newman, however, argue that the real influence on young girls is not the body shape of their dolls but the attitudes of parents. If an overweight mother is accepting of her own weight, this will help her daughter too. Newman feels that it's also the impact of television, magazines, and online media that influences young women. Blaming Barbie dolls is "an unfair burden to place on a toy."

The new Curvy Barbies are not just a way to beef up Mattel's sales but are also a savvy way to tie in with today's movements to make "fat" acceptable and even chic. The retailer Lane Bryant last year launched its "I'm No Angel " campaign picturing plus-size models wearing sexy lingerie -- a counter to the controversial Victoria's Secret ad campaign "The Perfect Body" that was roundly criticized by British women for not celebrating the diversity of women's bodies. Lane Bryant's next campaign "Plus is Equal" advocated equal representation of larger women in the media, and its ads featured photos by fashion photographer Cass Bird to reassure plus- size women that they could be glamorous too.

At American colleges and universities like the University of Maryland, there is an emerging new academic field called "Fat Studies." According to a Maryland course syllabus posted online, the aim of the course is not to view fatness as a medical problem but to "offer a sustained critique of anti-fat sentiment, discrimination, and policy." Students are asked to learn about the NAAFA, the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance which, according to its website, is "dedicated to protecting the rights and improving the quality of life for fat people" and working "to eliminate discrimination based on body size."

Meanwhile, there is some real disagreement about the word "fat" itself. Some larger women are writing that they want get rid of the words "fat" and "plus size" while others like Georgina Jones, a young woman in her 20s, say there is no point is making these words taboo: the real task is getting rid of the social stigma. Jones, writing on the website Bustle, says she wants to reclaim the word "fat" -- and suggests that doing so will have a liberating effect. "For me, fat as a descriptor is neither negative nor positive: It's simply an aspect of the body and an aspect that I happen to have plenty of."

In the midst of all this embracing and celebration of being zaftig, though, doctors and health professionals continue to point out that obesity poses real health risks, including contributing to the rising number of diabetics. There are also some recent reports by researchers that a number of parents, alarmingly, are viewing their children's obesity as the new normal.

Still, there are heightened expectations that the new Barbie dolls will help improve young girls' self-image and make "fuller-figure" females a more accepted part of the children's world. Whether it's the Curvy Barbies or the presence of Lena Dunham on television's "Girls" or those new "Fat Studies" courses (a name probably ripe for satire) or other recent developments, we're becoming a society more aware of our old prejudices about weight and the need for a wider acceptance of differences. Curvy Barbies may not be the ultimate panacea, but they're getting us to talk.