What Barbie does for a little girl's body image

i-f071489add916e308f0f83a86596b026-barbie.jpgThe 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.

i-8528a21210617c10841deb6e9eed8c6d-emme.jpgBut 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.

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but what are we to make of grown heterosexual men who have Barbie dolls? I think it is meant to be a source of humor (a strange one to me) but somebody should do a similar study of what these images do to men's expectations.

Did they not present the control results?

By Corby Dale (not verified) on 19 Apr 2006 #permalink


They did present control results; for simplicity I didn't include them here. In general they were not statistically distinct from the Emme dolls.

I wonder if it wouldn't be better for the entire female populace if they did away with "pink" barbies and just concentrated on the collectible high fashion barbies that the adult collectors collect. I always collected barbies for the clothes and to play with their hair. I never really looked at the body size. I wonder what has changed since I was young.

Do I correctly understand the missing bar for Emme / Kindergartners to mean that all the girls in that group were perfectly satisfied with their bodies - that they colored in the same images for themselves and their ideals?

You got it, Carl -- there was no difference at that age. I do find it fascinating to look at that graph for Emme and Barbie separately, to see how the different dolls appear to influence girls at different ages.

Where is Emme available? Is there diffrent dolls and clothes available or is just one doll? We were going to go the no barbie route, but it was nearly impossible, so our 5 year old does play with them, but we try to talk about bodies and beauty so that hopefully what we teach will out way what she see's when she see's barbie. But if we were going to keep her eyes off barbie we would have to do that with 90% of actresses too. Even young girls on tv and in movies are extremely thin, many unhealthly thin. I wish there were an easy answer!

I am a little confused by the response for Emme. If you look at the Emme graph by itself, you see an increase in body dissatisfaction. Did this mean that they saw Emme and wanted to be thinner, or just somehow less satisfied with themselves due to their age? My 6 yr old doesn't have a Barbie - it's not that I hate Barbies so much as I disapprove of them being marketed to such little girls. She does like the role-playing possibilities with the "grown-up" dolls, instead of "baby" dolls. We are now researching alternatives, like Only Heart Club and Groovy Girls.

"Did this mean that they saw Emme and wanted to be thinner, or just somehow less satisfied with themselves due to their age"

It means that after the second graders saw Emme, they were less satisfied with their bodies than they were before. The researchers suggest this is due to less positive associations with Barbie. Perhaps -- and this is just speculation on my part -- just seeing the fashion and shopping images made the girls more conscious of their body image, but when older girls saw Barbie, the negative image older girls had of Barbie made the shopping and fashion pictures seem less appealing.

I don't think it means you should buy Barbie once your daughter is in second grade; just that girls tend to not like Barbie at that point -- possibly, as you suggested, because they are marketed to younger girls.

Being a heterosexual male who had them from 12 into adulthood, I never used the doll as a beauty standard that females must live up to in reality. Though being able to use the doll to express the adult role of girlfriend or wife in play, I knew that in reality it was just a toy. Therefore having a clear understanding between the fantasy of the doll compared to the reality of female humanity, the values taught to me by my parents kept me grounded. The fact is that if they did not have entertainment value or monitary worth, Barbie would not be so popular.
The truth is that parents or peers are the first major influences on the child. Are they always talking about their own or another's appearance in comparison to being too fat, too thin, ugly, or perfect? Their living examples have a much greater impact that is being neglected. I had and have action figures with huge features unrealistic to my reality. Never did I consider them a standard to which I must reach to be somebody in life. It has always been rediculous to compare the value of a mass produced toy to that of the living being. A toy may have some similarities to reality. However, it is still inferior to the real thing.

i like barbie
barbie rocks

If you look at the cartoon, animation, comic book, and graphic novel images of females- virtually all of them have exaggerated proportions. The female characters all tend to be a caricature of what people already find attractive, and include features like big hair, huge eyes, long limbs, full lips, tiny noses, great wardrobes- perfect symmetry. And notably for Barbie at least, a tiny waist and large breasts.

Barbies, and many other dolls (like Bratz) also are caricatures of women- and I see them as no worse than other media stereotypes. Children at 5 and 6 years of age are still experimenting a great deal with role play, dressing up and being princesses or heroes. They can be princesses themselves, or role play using dolls like Barbie (whose figure allows clothes to hang well). They are beginning to differentiate between fantasy and make-believe.

By the time they are in second grade, most if not all these girls will be firmly grounded enough in what is "real" that they realize Barbie is just a doll they have outgrown, not some super-feminine heroine to look up to. This is really no different than boys abandoning their hyper-masculine boy action figures with the huge pecs and washboard abs at about the same age. (I am not talking about the adult toy collectors here- who never seem to outgrow them- myself included).

Men are biologically programmed to notice the physical signs of sexual maturity in a potential mate- so perhaps we can't blame the female for trying to attract a mate by using physical beauty that mimics reproductive readiness. Older women wear makeup, bleach their hair, and diet so they can appear young again. Health, full breasts, a .70 hip/waist ratio- all denote a woman at her best reproductive potential. Men look for it in a mate, women try to have it to attract men. Madison Avenue doesn't create these desires, it merely fulfills them. Because Barbie is so ridiculously hyperfeminine, she becomes an easy target for people to blame when someone has an eating disorder. After all, nobody looks like that in real life, right?

Girls will be exposed to numerous self-image shattering things throughout their lives, and often it comes from the cruelty and sniping of other girls- not toys. It is the nature of women and girls to compete and compare their physical beauty with others, just as it is in the nature of men to compete for appearance of status (fancy cars) and physical strength (sports). Much as it is politically incorrect to say it, the sexes are different, have different motivations and different brain wiring. Trying to blame our culture for creating these biological differences has frequently been the goal of sociological studies.

Perhaps we should just be honest with ourselves about human nature, and let the kids play with their toys!

By Morgan Williams (not verified) on 19 Jul 2007 #permalink

Morgan, every once in a blue moon I come across a post by a person that is calm, rational and based in reality. Thanks for saying it like it is.

I also love how studies are worded/summarized in a way that readers are left to assume the unsubstantiated premise of the study in the first place;

"a 2004 study observed that while young girls identify with Barbie, 10- to 14-year-olds have distanced themselves from Barbie."

Wow, pre-teens must have developed body-loathing after years of repeated exposure to Barbie and started to rebel against the message huh?

How about if we said;

"a 2004 study observed that while young boys identify with toy cars, 10- to 14-year-olds have distanced themselves from toy cars."

Wow, as they develop into young-adults, boys reject the whole concept of the need for power and status symbols.

Or perhaps, just reaching here, boys and girls start to leave the toys of childhood behind as they interact with the wolrd at large.

I'd have to agree with an earlier poster as well on who is creating the body expectations in women; other women. In Brazil there have been deaths in recent years as women starve themselves to look like anorexic supermodels. The men are saying bring us back the real women, the women couldn't care less; they are pressured by other women who set the trends.

Men date and marry women of all body-types, and the people whoj notice and comment on the extra 5 lbs are women.

There's an innovative Barbie Makeover program called The Doll Project in Pennsylvania in which girls take unwanted Barbies and re-create them into dolls they can relate to.

They don't have a web site, but you can access more info at http://www.thedressingroomproject.org Click on "What's New" and scroll down to "Better than Barbie."

All Girls Are Beautiful The Way They Are. If You Change Because Some Plastic Doll Thats Dumb. Be Yourself.

I had Barbies and played with them from age 3-12. I never felt the need to look as thin as Barbie. The study needs to go further and test test these same girls in 10 years, and 20 years to see if what happened was a phase or if there really are deeper issues here. I would guess that it is not Barbie alone that is pushing for thin figures, but the media in general who places thinner women as more valuable then the average woman.

Although I do not believe that Barbie is the sole reason for body image issues in children, I think that at a subconscious level it does influence their idea as to what a woman should look like. The main reason for this is that is the obsession that women have with plastic surgery, especially breast implants. I know that influences from all over contributed to this, but providing your child with an over sexualized doll with an extremely large chest isn't going to help their body image.
Also, Barbie has not been the same shape since she was first produced. Today's Barbies are a lot more scantily clad, as well as a lot thiner. When I was a child, Barbie was a doctor, lawyer, or other position of power and intelligence. Now Barbie is either a surfer babe or a fashion model, which although both careers do not imply that you are not intelligent, but they send the message that women are to be placed in roles where their body is more important than their mind.

Hi, I am writing my dissertation on Barbie and the body image she promoted for young girls. Do you have the information on what type of girls were tested? Where they a randomised selection with all different body types or where they girls above average body weight. Where can I find all of the information on this study as the results published are sketchy. Thanks.