A best-selling toy the world over, Barbie has been accused of violating a healthy body image and self-esteem in young girls. Now, a new study says that damage is really difficult to repair.
Since its launch in 1959, Barbie has historically had a very narrow view on beauty: super thin, small feet, white, and large breasts make her physiologically impossible, and one piece of literature said if she were a real woman, she would have to walk on all fours due to her proportions.
A 1965 version of Barbie even game with How to Lose Weight guidebook which advised young girls: “Don’t eat,” as part of a ‘slumber party’ pack that came with a set of scales permanently set to 110 pounds (49kg)!!
Several studies in the past have shown Barbie to negatively impact self-esteem and provoke body image issues in many of the young girls who have played with this wildly popular doll, which is still a global bestseller.
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But even after 2016, when the doll manufacturer Mattel released more realistic and diverse representations, the damage caused by Barbie concerning the perceived ‘ideal body’ is really difficult to undo.
New research published in the journal Body Image examined girls aged five to nine, who were given two dolls with unrealistic bodies: Barbie and Monster High; and then two realistically proportioned dolls: Dora and Lottie.
What the study found that playing with Barbie and Monster High dolls changed the girls’ perception of the ideal body shape towards the thinner end of the spectrum. But subsequently, playing with the more realistic dolls didn’t reverse these negative effects on how the girls’ perceived the ideal body.
“There is clear evidence for playing with ultra-thin dolls inducing a preference for a slimmer body amongst 6-9-year-old girls, and no evidence that playing with realistic childlike dolls has such an impact,” the study noted.
But while the realistic dolls didn’t reverse the girls’ idea of an ideal body, playing with the realistic dolls did increase their body satisfaction, which is a positive.
“What’s the take-home message from this research for parents? It seems like a good idea to steer children away from ultra-thin, adult-like dolls and stick with dolls that look more like actual children,” said Dr. Renee Engeln, professor of psychology at Northwestern University.
“Girls pick up on messages from family members, their peers, and the media about what types of bodies our culture finds acceptable or valuable. Even a small step toward changing the content of those messages can make a difference.”