Much has been made of Mattel’s new redesign of the Barbie doll to recapture the public’s imagination and pad their shrinking sales. The move has been lauded in such publications as Time and the New York Times as a strong boost to feminism and the continuing battle against women’s body dysmorphia and body image issues, but how strong is Mattel’s message, and is redesigning a doll going to change all that?
Barbie is an iconic doll. From her introduction in 1959, where her job was as a teenage fashion model, until now, she has been a staple in many young children’s play, and has had over one hundred jobs and thousands more outfits and accessories over the years. However, in recent years, she has come under fire for her role in the proliferation of young children, especially girls, with body dysmorphia and disordered relationships with food, and as a result, her sales have plummeted. The epidemic is by no means solely Barbie’s fault, of course; the fashion industry as a whole, including fashion dolls, needs to take more responsibility for its damaging messages. Barbie is, though, an easy scapegoat, and consumers can easily force her to change simply by refusing to buy her for their children.
Mattel has attempted other redesigns in the past with varying results. To accusations of anti-feminism, they have updated the “jobs” that Barbie has clothing for, including computer programmer, race car driver, Presidential candidate, film director, astronaut, etc., and they have downplayed the importance of the male dolls in Barbie’s world.
To complaints that Barbie is not diverse enough, Mattel has included characters with other ethnicities as friends and did eventually give Barbie other skin colors. Now, as body image problems and issues of race become more prominent in media coverage, Barbie has been forced to change yet again, this time changing her shape and height.
With great power comes great responsibility, and nowhere is that more evident than in the public’s pressure on Mattel to make Barbie representative of their children. With a rollout initially on their web site, Mattel is now offering Barbies in original, petite, tall, and curvy, rather reminiscent of Old Navy’s jeans. The original, appropriately, is the unaltered form that Barbie had been wont to appear in. The petite is a smaller scale doll, and the tall is longer. The curvy Barbie features larger hips and abdomen than the others. All dolls come in a variety of skin tones and hair colors. As one scrolls through the site’s offerings, however, it becomes obvious that not enough thought has been put into the psychology behind these changes. Every doll but the curvy is thin and proportioned similarly to the original Barbie; they are thin with narrow hips and high, small breasts. Therefore, it can be argued that the curvy dolls, just as their human counterparts, continue to be marginalized and held apart from others despite the illusion of inclusion. As Hayley Miller, Assistant Director of Nutrition at Eating Disorder Recovery Specialists, said, “Adding in more body types for Barbies is a step in the right direction, but we still have more work to do so that an athletic body type isn’t the majority of sizes out there. I don’t want young girls to think that being called ‘curvy’ means they’re always overweight. I want girls to embrace their shapes and have more representations of all shapes, colors, and sizes so that eating disorders and other mental health issues aren’t as prevalent.”
Another issue with the naming of the new Barbies is that being tall or petite does not come with the same stigma as being overweight does and mainly affects those women in terms of limiting clothing made for their size. As Ms. Miller stated, being “curvy” is a misnomer, as that is considered a P.C. term for “overweight” and therefore conflates the two in people’s minds when there are plenty of women who are at a healthy weight and have an hourglass shape, again reinforcing the idea that athletic builds are the only attractive ones. The issues with Mattel’s decision to give the new shapes titles begs the question: why do the new shapes need labels at all? Wouldn’t their supposed message be even more powerful if the Barbies’ looks spoke for themselves? If Mattel’s “real purpose” is to represent real women, then why not just do so by looking at real women and making dolls to match? Even just copying the three basic morphological types would be more realistic.
Mattel has taken a step in the right direction with their redesign of their iconic Barbie doll line, but they still have fallen prey to the prevailing language and thought of American fashion and need to try harder to understand the underlying prejudice in their branding. They took the superficial idea that they needed dolls in different shapes but did not take it to its logical conclusion. Therefore, these new dolls are a solid first step, but their efforts will be for naught if they do not continue to refine their products.