The New Diversity in Barbie Dolls: Radical Change or More of the Same?

Just recently Mattel announced its new line of Fashionistas Barbie dolls which the company says will bring diversity to its doll offerings. The new dolls will come in four different body types, 22 eye colors, seven different skin tones, different face shapes, and 24 hair styles. It's the four different body shapes that have gotten the biggest press: in addition to the original busty Barbie with her svelte shape and long legs, there will now be a petite Barbie, a tall Barbie, and most intriguingly-- the Curvy Barbie that has a bigger bust, heavier thighs, and wider hips.

As part of what it calls the "evolution of Barbie," the company will also be presenting diversity not only in body shape but also in race and ethnicity, represented by seven different skins tones.

Mattel's new additions to the Barbie line seem an inspired answer to critics who for years have been complaining that Barbie is a bad cultural model for young girls to mirror or imitate. According to some calculations, the typical 11.5" Barbie represents a woman whose figure measurements are 38-18-34--a tough goal for young women to attain. With their idealized adult female bodies and their perky pretty faces, Barbies have long been versions of the Perfect Woman--a paradigm, largely created by men that has haunted women for centuries and continues to worry parents whose daughters may fret about their own imperfect figures.

In 2006, three British academic researchers, Helga Dittmar, Emma Halliwell, and Suzanne Ive, writing in Developmental Psychology asked the question, "Does Barbie Make Girls Want to Be Thin?" and the answer was yes: when exposed to Barbie dolls and other similar toys, girls aged 5-8 showed signs of "lower self-esteem and greater desire for a thinner body shape." Early exposure to the dolls "may damage girls' body image" which would lead to an increased risk of eating disorders (the negative impact wasn't there with the oldest girls).

The researchers recommended that educators work on intervention to prevent Barbie dolls from being "aspirational role models" for young girls, and they argued for the type of dolls that would "allow for a diversity of body types and more realistic, healthy body ideals for young girls." The new Barbies definitely present diversity.

The new Barbies may also help with another issue that has troubled critics: boys looking at Barbie dolls may form their own misguided notions of the Perfect Woman, and become like the two nerdy young men Wyatt and Gary satirized in the 1985 Hollywood comedy Weird Science who used a Barbie doll and their computer to create their own ideal female (in the movie, at least, the result of their experiment turned out to be ideal in an unexpected way: the beautiful and sexy Lisa (played by Kelly LeBrock) who helps them gain popularity and social confidence).

Also providing diversity, the new Nikki Barbie with her variety of skin tones and hair styles ranging from dark, long, and straight to wavy and full also seem to answer a cultural need. Mattel introduced its first African-American and Latina Barbies in 1980, but researchers Derek Hopson and Darlene Powell Hopson in their 1990 book Different and Wonderful reported that black children preferred white dolls over black dolls, indicating that the children had self-esteem issues. The authors urged parents to help change their children's perceptions and also buy their children black Barbies because, as the Hopsons emphasized with italics, "You do not want your child to grow up thinking that only White dolls and by extension White people are attractive and nice."

In 1991, mindful of the African-American market, Mattel in 1991 introduced its new black Shani, Asha, and Nichelle dolls with different skin tones but with the same traditional Barbie figures. The new Fashionistas dolls with their seven different skins tones that just now been introduced do not appear to be radically different though the body types will differ.

So here is the question: Will the new Fashionistas dolls which will be on the market soon represent a radical shift or more of the same? One of the doll's four different body types will still be the original Barbie with her shapely sexy, and hard-to-emulate idealized body. Their website in January included a photo of the "Original Barbie" Doll #14-- a Caucasian, leggy, busty doll with cascading waving blonde hair. These original Barbies still represent the toy's familiar model of femininity, however difficult it might be to actually achieve, and however problematic its influence on young girls.

Commenting on the new Curvy Barbies, Emily L. Newman, a professor at Texas A & M University--Commerce whose research focus is on female body images, points out that the new Curvy dolls may not be that radically different after all. "I would never look at that Barbie and think she's overweight." Mattel has been careful in the doll's design: rather than looking obese, Curvy Barbie, says Newman, is "fat in all the right places---hips and thighs--and even "looks more feminine in some ways." She's been designed to look appealing, and doesn't look "overweight, abnormal, unhealthy."

The new diverse Barbie dolls look like welcome alternatives for parents to consider buying, but some important questions still remain: Will the dolls with multiple skin tones representing cultural diversity help change social attitudes and perceptions, and children's own self-perceptions? Will parents of heavier girls validate their children by buying them Curvy Barbies or will they opt to give their children the original role model Barbie? Or give them both? Will the new dolls help change children's perceptions--and cultural perceptions--about weight?

Will the new dolls help counter the pervasive media push for young girls, and women to look like beautiful dolls and runway models? Will the dolls help girls feel like they can be themselves-----not artificial but genuine, not a cultural image of perfection but wonderfully diverse?

Mattel itself seems to be hedging its bets about promoting radical change. Introducing the new Fashionistas dolls, the video on the Barbie. com website in late January featured young girls representing a variety of different races, ethnicities, and body shapes playing with the new dolls. In the online video, Robert Best, Mattel's Senior Director of Product Design, says the new dolls are "radical because we're saying there isn't this narrow standard of what a beautiful body looks like." Says Tania Missad, the corporation's Director of Consumer Insights, "We have to let young girls know it doesn't matter what shape you come in--anything is possible" as it segues to a girl saying she wants to be a teacher when she grows up and another girl saying she wants to be a scientist. But neither of the dolls these girls are actually holding looks like one of the curvy or black models. The plus-size black girl in the video is shown playing with what appears to be Caucasian, noncurvy Barbies: in one clip her doll has black hair and in another, the girl is stroking the hair of a blonde-haired doll.

Weirdly, in the video we also see an employee hand painting pink lips on a disembodied black doll's head, and also a glimpse of the headless torso of a black doll. These images of disembodied body parts seem to be making a statement: This doll of color is very definitely artificial, a fantasy, a construct we're putting together. This again makes us wonder: Will these new Fashionista dolls with their diverse skin tones and body shapes make a major difference in the lives of real-world children? Or is that just a fantasy too?