New Shapes for the Old Barbie: Will it Make a Difference?

New Barbies will be available in short, tall, thin and “curvy.”
February 09, 2016

Do Barbie’s “normal” new looks matter?

Seemingly since her introduction in 1959, the doll has been at the center of a cultural tug-of-war, with some arguing that the thin dolls with unnatural proportions, blonde hair and tiny feet reinforce a harmfully unattainable female ideal, and others seeing it as merely a harmless toy.

With an eye to modernizing and perhaps an ear toward the criticism, Mattel recently unveiled a new set of Barbies, featuring a variety of body shapes, skin tones, eye colors and hairstyles, that will be released over the coming months.

How will the new models go over? UVA Today checked in with a concerned University of Virginia student, a branding and advertising expert, a professor who researches youth development, and a veteran observer of cross-cultural issues related to female beauty who has taught the seminar “From Cinderella to Barbie.”

Kendall Siewert, a third-year student majoring in women, gender and sexuality, is writing an article about changing depictions of female body images, including the new Barbies. She’ll publish it in the online publication, “Iris Magazine: for Thinking Young Women,” for which she works as an intern. Iris is produced at UVA’s Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center.

Although it’s good to see more realistic and diverse depictions of female body shapes, Siewert said she doesn’t expect a new set of dolls to have much influence.

“Meanings of ‘thin’ and ‘fat’ are taught, so in a larger sense, it doesn’t matter what the dolls look like,” said Siewert, who cited a 2015 national survey that found about 90 percent of all women responding said they worried about their weight and had tried some kind of diet. “Living daily life as a woman, we’re so influenced by thin identity culture.”

It’s not just a woman’s issue, she added. “In gender studies, you can see unfair expectations of men’s bodies, too,” she said. A budding photographer, Siewert recently posted a photo essay on the Iris website with powerful images of college women who tell in their own words how our culture’s norms of beauty have affected their self-identity. She plans to see if young men will volunteer for a similar project.

• Curry School of Education Associate Professor Joanna Lee Williams conducts research that focuses on race and ethnicity as social contexts for youth development. She is also affiliated with Youth-Nex: The UVA Center to Promote Effective Youth Development.

Williams said having Barbies with different body types and characteristics does offer children a more nuanced message of what the range of beauty can be. In that regard, Mattel’s new line might serve as an important step.

Modern testing of how children interact with the new dolls might eventually provide actual evidence of whether the new Barbies “matter” or not. Such tests in generations past influenced public policy, but ultimately proved unreliable.

In early doll-test studies in the 1940s, young black children favored white dolls over black dolls, which was interpreted as showing that black children must have low self-esteem if they chose the white doll as the one that was better or prettier. With advances in developmental psychology, however, we now know those pre-kindergarten children were not demonstrating low self-esteem or self-rejection, Williams said.

“At that age, they’re not connecting the toy with themselves; they were trying to give the ‘right’ answer,” Williams said. “Even young children are aware of messages that suggest ‘dark is bad’ and ‘light is good’.”

“From a young age, children start creating narratives about what is beautiful in respect to themselves,” she said. “And when they’re transitioning into adolescence, that’s when they worry and start questioning themselves in relation to these narratives.”

• Farzaneh Milani, a professor for almost 30 years in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures and in the Women, Gender and Sexuality program, taught a seminar, “From Cinderella to Barbie” that focused on cross-cultural perspectives and issues of female beauty.

“We do live in an era of expanded female presence and power. But greater opportunities for women have not prevented the culture of beauty from being stifling,” she said, including when it comes to freedom of movement.

One trait the characters Cinderella and Barbie have traditionally shared is tiny feet, which for centuries have been considered a sign of beauty. In Barbie’s case, her unnaturally small feet were always shaped on tiptoe to fit into high-heeled shoes, which themselves symbolize a restricted mobility. The new Barbies have moveable ankles that allow them to wear flat shoes for the first time.

“There is now a competing narrative of women’s beauty that is gaining more and more currency – not only in the U.S., but in many parts of the world. This new definition of beauty supplants stillness with motion and replaces sleeping beauties with active, mobile women. The new Barbie is simply following this trend,” Milani said.

Carrie Heilman, an associate professor in the McIntire School of Commerce, specializes in brand management and advertising.

Barbie enjoys extremely high brand awareness and recognition, and Mattel has been reluctant to change that iconic look, she said. But times change.

“It was time for them to do something. It’s a smart move,” she said.

A brand, Heilman pointed out, isn’t just a product; it needs to stand for something. She had seen a preview ad from Mattel that forecast the direction the company was taking, with the theme of empowering young women. Other brands, including Lego, Dove and Always, have also tried associating with this theme.

“Not only has Barbie shed her ‘unattainable image,’ but she now offers consumers a variety of different looks. It’s more like American Girl dolls. The brand is giving customers the ability to choose,” she said.

From a business perspective, however, the bottom line is what really motivated Mattel. The company had to innovate to stop losing customers, Heilman said.

“They are trying to keep loyal customers while also winning back the millions of moms who switched to other toy and doll brands over the years,” she said.

So, does the new Barbie matter? Time may provide an answer, but Heilman also agrees with another sentiment about the question: If parents think a toy doll is solely responsible for shaping their daughter’s self-image, they probably should think more about parenting.

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Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications