How Barbie Has Impacted Women’s Beauty Standards and Identity

Alice Thébault

Barbie (2023) by Greta Gerwig has been commended for its feminist themes, including the notable scene in which America Ferrera’s character, Gloria, discusses the societal pressure for women to always look and be perfect. However, Barbie as a brand and a toy hasn’t always been so body-positive or diverse. Alice Thébault explores how Barbie has actually impacted women and young girls’ identities since its 1959 debut.

 “Empowering the next generation through play” is Mattel’s proud tagline, but Barbie hasn’t always struck that chord. Barbie was born out of a desire to give young girls toys other than the baby dolls saturating toy stores that encouraged nurturing and motherhood, rather than offering diverse aspirations beyond the role of mother and homemaker. Barbie was a career woman, and since her creation in 1959, her resume has spanned over 250 aspirational roles.

One can’t help but question why such a toy, meant for impressionable young girls, ever graced the shelves of stores

Ruth Handler, the visionary behind Barbie, wanted her creation to convey that “through the doll a little girl could be anything she wanted to be and that she has choices”. For all the aspirations Barbie sparked, the doll fell short of empowering girls by modern standards. The focus on play that imagined perfect looks, dreamy romance and a sexualised physique garnered criticism for the doll, with some labelling her as “an agent of female oppression”. 

And it’s no wonder when, in 1965, Slumber Party Barbie hit the scene with a weighing scale set permanently to 110 lbs (50kg) and an accompanying diet book offering a singular piece of advice: “don’t eat”. While that mantra might suit dolls made of plastic just fine, one can’t help but question why such a toy, meant for impressionable young girls, ever graced the shelves of stores. It’s not surprising that Mattel later came under fire in 1992, when they introduced a Barbie with the catchphrase “Math class is tough”. The comment quickly found its place within a report on how schools hold girls back.    

The birth of body positivity came only a decade after the birth of Barbie, though it would take another 47 years for Mattel to get on board the body-positive movement. Gone are the days when Barbie was all about that one-size-fits-all slim figure, though that narrow focus dominated her image for most of her lifetime. For over five decades, the doll has been accused of creating aesthetic pressures on young girls and contributing to body image disturbances. Clinical health psychologist Jennifer Webb found “lower body esteem and greater thin-ideal internalisation [in young girls exposed to Barbie]”, over the last two decades. 

Equally, a cause for concern were the findings of a 2010 study which revealed that after playing with thin dolls like Barbie, those girls ate markedly less than their peers who were exposed to average-sized dolls, clearly demonstrating the influence of dolls’ measurements on young girls’ relationship with food. The studies raise concerns that Barbie’s improbable measurements could have harmful implications on girls’ eating habits.  

the naming choices for these dolls, such as ‘curvy’, ‘tall’, ‘petite’, have raised concerns that this will continue problematic patterns 

In a refreshing move towards celebrating diversity and body-positivity (and to curb declining sales), Mattel gave the iconic doll a long-overdue makeover. Since 2016, the Barbie lineup has been diversified to include curvy Barbie, Barbie with Down Syndrome, Barbie with hearing aids and Barbie in a wheelchair. Barbie’s transformation captivated the media and the public alike, reflecting the widespread excitement over her ‘finally becoming a real woman’ with more realistic proportions and the healthier self-image that this would promote. With that said, these changes haven’t been universally embraced, and the naming choices for these dolls, such as ‘curvy’, ‘tall’, ‘petite’, have raised concerns that this will continue problematic patterns of over-emphasising looks for girls.  

Barbie, as a brand, has unquestionably evolved from its once iconic image of a doll with an impossibly tiny waist that could only realistically fit half a liver and lacking the 17% fat required to menstruate. While the company has taken strides to embrace diverse body types,  whether or not these efforts go far enough to cultivate a generation with a more resolute sense of self-worth remains a hot topic of debate.

Alice Thébault

Featured image courtesy of Elena Mishlanova via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

In-article images courtesy of @barbie via No changes were made to this image.

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