The Impact Of Barbie

Young girls are vulnerable to body image distortions in popular culture.

Barbie made her big entrance into the world in 1959, stepping out in her iconic striped swimsuit and blonde coif at the American Toy Fair in New York City. The Barbie doll was an instant hit, and has remained a favorite for young girls the world over ever since. She’s been both hailed as an empowering role model for girls who aspire to powerful careers, and decried as a symbol of materialism and unhealthy body image.

Empowerment

Over the years, Barbie has taken on a variety of roles: astronaut, Olympic athlete, doctor, ballerina, cowgirl, pop star, military service woman, even a Harley-Davidson biker. In some cases — as with the her incarnation as a female astronaut — this imaginary, independent woman of the world took career paths not yet open to real-world women. To many young girls, this sends a powerful message that anything is possible.

Materialism

Despite her “can-do” attitude, even Barbie has limits. A majority of the Barbie doll‘s incarnations over the years have highlighted fashion, accessories, cars and homes, all in that never-ending quest for perfection. That focus on appearance has led many to charge that Barbie places far too much emphasis on material possessions, putting pressure on girls to attain things, rather than achieve goals.

Unrealistic Body Image

Perhaps no aspect of Barbie has received more criticism than her physical dimensions. It’s estimated that if Barbie were enlarged to life size, she would measure 36-18-38 and, at less an 17 percent body fat, her body would be unable to support normal menstruation. A 2005 study of 162 girls aged 5 to 8, published by the American Psychological Association, noted that exposure to the Barbie doll caused lowered body esteem and a greater desire for a thinner body that could lead to unhealthy eating behaviors in the youngest subjects.

Considerations

The APA study suggests that Barbie‘s influence on negative body image may be negligible after the age of 7 or 8, when girls begin to internalize body image and rely less on external environmental influences on body image. The study suggests that there is a need to make young girls aware that Barbie and other make-believe figures represent unattainable, unhealthy beauty ideals. More important, parents and caregivers need to refocus youngsters’ attention on sources of self-esteem that do not rely solely on appearance.