The average 3- to 10-year-old girl in the U.S. owns eight Barbies. Only one percent of this group owns no Barbies. And every girl seems to go through similar stages with her Barbies — first, adoration, next, ambivalence, and finally, rejection. By the time they’re in middle school, most girls have either thrown out their Barbies or cut off their hair and amputated multiple limbs. These aren’t just casual observations — a 2004 study observed that while young girls identify with Barbie, 10- to 14-year-olds have distanced themselves from Barbie.
But what of the recent media hype suggesting that Barbie promotes an unhealthy body image? What of careful measurements finding that a life-sized Barbie would be over seven feet tall, thinner than most anorexics, and physically unable to menstruate? In 2003, Tonner Doll Company introduced the Malibu Emme, a more realistic adult doll whose body would translate into a size 16 dress. The idea was that this doll would promote healthier body image among girls. The doll never caught on among consumers, but the question remains: would a more realistic doll be a better role model for children?
Now a new study by Helga Dittmar, Emma Halliwell, and Suzanne Ive has tested whether Emme is more effective in promoting healthy body image. They created three different picture books for girls — one featuring Barbie, one starring Emme, and one with no dolls. The story in each book was identical (shopping for a party outfit, trying on clothes, getting ready for the party); only the pictures varied. Experimenters read these books to 162 girls in England. One group saw only the Barbie pictures, another group saw only Emme pictures, while the final group saw only pictures of stores and clothes with no dolls.
Next, each girl was tested to determine her level of satisfaction with her body size. She was shown a set of seven outline drawings of girls’ bodies, ranging from heavy to ultrathin. Each girl was first asked to color in the body that looked most like her. Then she was given a new set of identical drawings, and asked to color in the body she would most like to have. The discrepancy between the girl’s actual body and her ideal body is a measure of her level of satisfaction with her body size. As it turned out, body dissatisfaction did depend on which book the girls had seen, and also the girls’ age:
Kindergartners and first-graders (level 1 and 2 in England) who had seen the Barbie book had significantly more negative body satisfaction than those who saw the Emme book. But for second graders (level 3), the pattern was reversed. Apparently these girls had already entered the Barbie-bashing phase of childhood.
For younger girls, however, Dittmar’s group argues that the negative body image associated with Barbie may be an indication of body dissatisfaction, which can lead to depression and may be a precursor to anorexia.
Dittmar, H., Halliwell, H., & Ive, S. (2006). Does Barbie make girls want to be thin? The effect of experimental exposure to images of dolls on the body image of 5- to 8-year-old girls. Developmental Psychology, 42(2), 283-292.