​why the new barbie bodies matter

We look into the feminist failings of Barbie's past to see just why the new line with more realistically shaped bodies is important.

by Morwenna Jones
01 February 2016, 10:51pm

She's been branded "the most infamous body in the world". If she were life-size, she'd be 5'9" tall, weighing in at just under eight stone with her 16" waist, 29" hips and 32" bust evincing the perfect hourglass figure. Of course, she'd also lack the 17% body fat necessary to menstruate, would have to crawl on all fours due to her ankles being unable to support her body, and would have a head 6" larger than her own waist, which would also be so out of proportion that she'd have to live without several vital internal organs, have half a liver and a few inches of intestine.

Of course, I'm talking about Barbie, the most famous doll in history. Over her 57-year-long career she's starred in 34 movies, been the subject of Aqua's worldwide chart-topping single Barbie Girl, and become her own franchise of video games, magazines and clothing. And now, she's just undergone the biggest makeover in her history. 

Late last week toy manufacturing giant Mattel announced that they are creating new Barbie dolls with "tall, curvy and petite" body shapes, as well as different skin tones, eye colours and hairstyles. Barbie Fashionistas will feature 33 new dolls, 30 hair-colours, 24 hairstyles, 22 eye colours, 14 face shapes, seven skin tones and four body shapes; the aforementioned "tall, curvy and petite" as well as "original".

Sales of Barbie dolls have been in freefall for the last two years, changing the face (and body) of a doll owned by 92% of American girls aged 3-12 is a bold move by the company, but maybe the last roll of the dice, too. It's also a move that it's hard not to see as responsive to the increase in awareness surrounding issues relating to female body image. It goes without saying that the never-changing shape of the Barbie is incompatible with the fact that womanhood and women's shapes are not one thing, an incompatibility that has important repercussions for Barbie's young audience.

For nearly six generations, Barbie has sent a message to children that women should have one particular shape and that this one particular shape is more valuable than others. In 1963, Slumber Party Barbie was even sold with a set of scales permanently stuck at 110 pounds and her own diet book entitled How to Lose Weight, which had one very simple recommendation: "Don't Eat!"

Archaic as that advice may seem, nearly 40 years later in 2006 a study published in the journal Developmental Psychology found that Barbie was continuing to make young girls feel inadequate. It revealed that girls exposed to Barbie at a young age expressed greater anxiety about their body weight compared with those exposed to other dolls, results that are hardly surprising.

I can remember a girl in my sixth-form who had a mug that read "I just want to be like Barbie… that bitch has everything", and the mug was right. Over the years Barbie has had a plane, a train, a beach house, a luxury ski chalet, more convertible sports cars than she knows what to do with and, of course, Ken, her handsome fictional boyfriend who has been everything from an Olympic gold medallist to a pizza delivery boy.

What is most worrying is that previous dolls have continuously espoused the notion that being thin and beautiful goes hand in hand with "having everything", and even, on some occasions that beauty and fashion are the most important things a girl can think about.

Previous pre-programmed "Hello Barbie" dolls having been wired to utter phrases like "Math class is tough", "Let's plan our dream wedding" and, as of September last year, the most recent Hello Barbie still utters lines like "One place to learn a lot about outfits and clothes is school!" and "Hey... wanna talk about fashion for a bit?"

Seen in this context, it's no surprise that Barbie attracted scrutiny with her most famous catchphrase, the 1984 slogan "We girl can do anything!" and Mattel's subsequent statement that Barbie was an icon of female empowerment. What's most depressing is that years earlier Barbie really was an icon of female empowerment, she was a businesswoman in 1963, an astronaut in 1965 and a surgeon in 1973, when just 9% of doctors were women.

Barbie COO Richard Dickson might have argued that "Barbie had careers at a time when women were restricted to being just housewives" but shop for an "I Can Be" career Barbie today and your choices are limited to babysitters, pop-stars and "pet vets" and "zoo doctors" (because apparently you're a "doctor" if you look after zoo animals, but only a "vet" if you look after hamsters and guinea pigs).

However, for the first time, children can see more realistic ideas of female beauty and ideas of womanhood and women's shapes that mimic their own or the women they know. "We believe we have a responsibility to girls and parents to reflect a broader view of beauty," said Evelyn Mazzocco, Senior Vice President and Global General Manager Barbie. "Barbie has always given girls choices -- from her 180 careers, to inspirational roles, to her countless fashions and accessories...We are excited to literally be changing the face of the brand -- these new dolls represent a line that is more reflective of the world girls see around them -- the variety in body type, skin tones and style allows girls to find a doll that speaks to them".


Text Morwenna Jones