The American Barbie doll is an icon that young girls have played with since 1959, when Barbie settled in as an American fixture in the lives of children, first in the United States — and in more recent years, worldwide. Playing with Barbie dolls was one of my favorite activities when I was a child growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, and today, young girls ages 5 to 11 still love to play with them. But Barbie has become increasingly controversial as our society has started talking about the impact of the doll’s appearance on the self-image of young girls.
(As a child, when I played with Barbie, I don’t think that I was consciously aspiring to look like a Barbie doll, although I know I thought her lifestyle and all her cool possessions were pretty awesome.)
For decades now, feminists have complained that Barbie creates an impossible and sexualized standard of beauty for young girls. The debate was re-ignited when Sports Illustrated chose to have Barbie on its latest swimsuit edition cover for a limited number of publications. While many speculate this was merely a marketing ploy by Mattel to increase sales (which have been on the decline), others saw it as validating in that even a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model can’t measure up to a Barbie doll.
Personally, I believe Barbie needs to be viewed as what she is: a doll, a toy that is a caricature of an adult woman, not a figure to copy or model oneself after. When little girls play with Barbie, they are playing out the life of a fairy tale. The dresses, the costumes, the perfect friends and houses; for little girls, it’s all like having a miniature celebrity living in your house, and you get to pretend by play acting. Dolls are great creative play toys for children, and Barbie is no exception, regardless of whether or not she has the “perfect” body.
It’s indisputable that Mattel image of a female as presented by Barbie is unrealistic, inhuman and simply over the top. And yet for a young girl it’s possible to play with a Barbie as the caricature doll that she is meant to be, similar to the dreamlike qualities of Cinderella, Snow White or Sleeping Beauty. It’s true that Barbie’s naked body is extreme in proportions. Perhaps covering it up with permanent underclothes or scaling down her proportions to fit more with reality (as a toymaker has recently tried to do) would solve the problem of body image concerns that many fear she instills in her young female fans, without dismissing her value in little girls’ lives completely.
My guess is that many girls below the age of 10 think of Barbie as magical not because of her physical body, but because of her perfect lifestyle and all the professions she encompasses and the grandeur of what she represents. Of course people are concerned that on a subliminal level girls will associate a Barbie-like physical appearance with that upscale lifestyle. But can we really blame that on Barbie?
While many psychologists and others speculate that Barbie does more harm than good to young girls and their self-image, given that we as a species are inherently attracted to aesthetically pleasing images (as numerous studies have shown), I am not certain that eliminating Barbie will have much impact other than taking away one more toy with creative potential. Barbies and all dolls risk becoming obsolete due to the current virtual world of video games and electronics. That would be a shame in that creative play with dolls and the outlet it brings children can’t be replicated virtually. Rather than take away Barbie and the joy and imaginative play she inspires, we have to teach our children that she’s not part of “real life;” she’s a toy and not something to emulate.
Dolls such as Barbie play an important role in the lives of little girls; they allow their creative mind to role play and make up a pretend world. Wouldn’t you rather see your daughter use her imagination and creativity playing with her dolls instead of always watching TV? Tell us what you think in the comments below.
About Dr. Kate Roberts
Kate Roberts, Ph.D., is a Boston-area licensed clinical psychologist and certified school psychologist who has coached parents and families for more than 25 years. She offers parents practical strategies in her bi-weekly parenting column; Dr. Kate’s Parent Rap in the Salem News and in her Savvy Parenting blog for Psychology Today. Dr. Roberts has worked as a consulting psychologist to school districts throughout New England and works with parents and children through Massachusetts General Hospital. You can check out Dr. Kate's website at www.drkateroberts.com and also follow her on Twitter and Facebook.