It’s (Not) a Barbie World

When I was a child, Barbie was synonymous with femininity. I vividly remember pressing my body against the toy store window just to get a closer look at Barbie’s beautiful pink cruise ship and matching outfits. As a child, I wasn’t allowed to have a Barbie, the result of a liberal mother’s hope to instill body positivity (which, thankfully, she was successful in). It wasn’t until years later, when the juvenile importance of having the doll dwindled, that I began to understand how potentially problematic Barbie was, particularly for young and therefore innately impressionable little girls.

Barbie was first launched in March of 1959 by Ruth Handler, named after her own daughter Barbara (and her son Kenneth, hence the later creation of Ken) and was produced by Mattel Inc. Since its launch, Barbie has become an American icon of popular culture.

The most common controversy surrounding Barbie was the same one my mother took issue with all those years ago -- “she's too skinny.” Which is true. Based on her size, if Barbie was an actual person, she would be roughly 5’9, with a 36-inch chest, 18-inch waist, and 33-inch hip circumference, which is wildly smaller than the average and healthy size of a woman of that height. “Barbie Baby-sits,” a popular outfit released in 1963, was accompanied with a book entitled, How to Lose Weight, which suggested “Don’t eat!” That same book was included in a “Slumber Party” set, which also included a toy scale, set to the weight of 110 lbs (which is about 40 pounds under the suggested weight for a 5’9 woman). It wasn’t until 1997 that Barbie’s waist was widened slightly in order to give her a more “realistic” and “natural” look. And still, mothers like mine weren’t buying it.

In addition to the obvious body image issues related to Barbie, there were representational controversies as well. The lack of diversity in the Barbie line did not go unnoticed. Barbie was a beautiful and thin white girl, who came as a blonde or brunette, when first launched. In 1980, over 20 years since the release, the Latina (then called Hispanic) dolls were created, and later dolls from around the world. The first African-American Barbie was launched in 1967, dubbed “Colored Francie,” a name that would make anyone cringe today. This African-American doll lacked all African-American features, as she was produced from the same mold as Barbie and painted a darker color. Decades later, in 2009, the “So In Style” range was released, which featured dolls that more accurately embodied African-American women and their corresponding features.

On February 11, Mattel announced that Barbie would soon come with different hair textures, varying body types, and even physical disabilities. There will soon be a Barbie in a wheelchair and another doll with a prosthetic leg. Over the past few years, Barbie has gotten increasingly diverse, a direct response to exactly what consumers have been waiting for. Mattel announced that they would be working closely with UCLA in order to design an accurate wheelchair as well as work closely with Jordan Reeves, a twelve-year-old with a prosthetic limb.

Representation is paramount. As representation has been so lacking until recent years (and there is still much work to be done), it is exciting to see multi-million dollar empires like Mattel adjusting to create a doll relevant and relatable to their marketed base. It is statistically beneficial for young girls to have dolls that look like they do, as it is not only a source of confidence but empowerment, as being recognized by society allows young people to believe that they can actively partake in it. Perhaps Mattel’s decision to distribute dolls of diverse features may inspire other companies to follow suit. This small step is one that may have positive ripple effects, as it allows room for the validation and inspiration of children, which in turn may raise a generation of increasingly socially-conscious young people.