Kids and Dolls: An Opportunity for Conversation about Bodies . . . and More

The American Barbie doll entered the scene in 1959, and quickly settled in as an American icon in the lives of young children, first in the United States and ultimately worldwide. Last month, Mattel announced that Barbie is getting a new body and that the new body types – curvy, petite, and tall – would be available in a wider variety of skin tones, eye colors, and hairstyles than ever before.

Why the new look, and why now? Perhaps Mattel at long last recognized that precious few of the children who play with Barbie will ever look like her. However, it’s equally likely that Barbie has been updated in response to criticisms about her negative impact on girl’s body image as well as clearly plummeting sales.

When we heard about Barbie’s evolving look, we decided to ask some colleagues in the mental health field (who happen to be parents of young children) what they thought. We wondered (1) if kids were still playing with Barbie, (2) if they ever commented on the doll’s appearance, and (3) if these clinician-parents liked the new size labels.

One licensed clinical psychologist on faculty in a liberal arts college, who preferred to remain anonymous, noted that despite efforts to keep Barbie out of the mix for her children, they did show up occasionally as hand-me-down toys or at school. She added, “The children play with them in all sorts of ways – as princesses, as teachers and parents, and as action figures.”

Clinical psychologist Melissa Robinson-Brown, Ph.D., elaborated that her daughters, who are of African American and Trinidadian descent, notice whether the dolls are “peach or brown” and that her eldest child frequently “makes comparisons between her hair, the hair of the Barbie, and that of her friends.” Though she and her husband try to expose them to all types of dolls, they have found it difficult to find dolls with brown skin and hair that is representative of various cultures (especially at a cost comparable to Barbie).

How might parents foster a productive and healthy conversation about this doll’s or any other figure’s appearance? Several helpful hints were offered:

  • Steer the conversation in terms of what the doll can do, not what she/he looks like. For example, “Yes, she looks pretty in that dress but could she really move well enough to catch the bad guys or climb that wall in that dress and heels?”
  • If your child comments on a difference between themselves and the dolls, get them talking about it. It’s an opportunity to discuss diversity in appearance, due to race, ethnicity, culture, and biology. [If you are looking for an opportunity to expand the conversation about celebrating differences in appearance, you might also check out relevant children’s books on the topic, such as Shapesville.]
  • Ask your child to elaborate on the plot of the pretend play: “Where is the doll going? Who will she see there? What will she do?” These questions can help your child further develop language skills and foster creativity.
  • Inquire about the doll’s inner world: “What is she thinking or feeling right now?” Queries like this de-emphasize the external in favor of the internal, which can help foster emotional expressiveness.

Beyond Barbie: How We Talk about Our Own Bodies Matters:

The strategies outlined above ought to be consistent with how parents discuss their own bodies, and their children’s bodies – emphasizing what our bodies can do rather than how they look (For example: “You ran so fast across the playground!” or “I feel strong when I carry those heavy grocery bags into the house!”). Focusing more on the plot points of your or your children’s life – a big meeting at work, activities planned for an upcoming family trip, or the latest topic being taught in the classroom – and less on wardrobe, weight or appearance will model what is and is not important. Of course it’s important to tell your kids that they look beautiful (because they do!), but this ought not to be at the expense of letting them know that a big part of what makes for beauty comes from the inside.

What’s in a name (or a label)?

The new category labels – curvy, petite, and tall – were met with decidedly mixed reviews. Dr. Jonathan Fader, clinical and sport psychologist and co-founder of Union Square Practice in Manhattan had this to say on the topic: “In my view, having dolls of different shapes and sizes is a big step forward. If I could make a change, I wouldn’t label them “curvy” or “petite”. Why teach kids to label in that way?  Just make the toys and allow kids to play with dolls that look like them or not without the label. Being the parent of two girls, I work hard to make sure that they get messaging that centers on valuing themselves as people not on aesthetics or appearances. I think dolls of all shapes, colors and sizes help in that.”

Dr. Robinson-Brown agrees that the categories themselves more accurately represent the true diversity of what is beautiful, but also hopes that this is the just the beginning. “I want to see combinations like curvy and tall or petite and curvy…I like the black doll because she doesn’t have just long, straight hair, but I would still love to see dolls [of all skin tones] with tight curls that, again, are more like the hair we see on little black girls.”

Responses from our colleagues suggested that if Mattel had been more ambitious with its designs or diversity, or if the dolls had worn their labels like badges of honor, the excitement might be stronger. But “regular” Barbie didn’t get a new label, potentially implying that she is the standard, typical one and that curvy, petite, or tall Barbie is “other,” different and a deviation from the norm. Dr. Robinson-Brown said that she hopes that Mattel can transmit more ambitious messages through “changes in commercials and advertisements.”

Overall, respondents to our survey, though pleased with Barbie’s evolution, had many ideas of additional meaningful changes that could truly bring Barbie into the 21st century. Young girls are also having mixed reactions.

Was this a step forward? Sure. Was it a leap? Not quite. After all, a big jump would be a challenge for a doll who still stands on her tippy toes all of the time.

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