For years now, you’ve heard a familiar refrain about Barbie dolls: What kind of message are we sending to girls when the beloved toy comes with body proportions that aren’t even realistic for a supermodel?
On Thursday, Mattel announced a major makeover to the doll that is squarely aimed at addressing those concerns. And, to be sure, it’s also a bid to boost sales at a pivotal moment for the toymaking giant.
Mattel has added three new body types to the line: petite, tall and curvy. The traditional Barbie body — with its teeny waist, big bust and outsize head — will remain in the line-up. The company also touted that this year’s roster of Barbies includes seven skin tones, 22 eye colors and 24 hairstyles, an effort to make the dolls look more diverse.
In a video announcing the changes, Mattel executives cast the move as an act of progressivism, an acknowledgement that they believe it is simply the right thing to do to have their doll collection better reflect real women.
“This is radical. Because we’re saying there isn’t this narrow standard of what a beautiful body looks like,” Robert Best, senior director of product design, says in the video.
The video includes shots of a diverse group of girls playing with the dolls, echoing similar sentiments.
“It’s important for Barbies to look different. You know, like the real people in the world,” one little girl says.
Another girl, toting a Barbie in each hand, declares, “I like them, because this one looks like me and this one looks like my mom.”
The line of dolls with varied body types was available for order on Mattel’s website Thursday and will begin hitting store shelves throughout the spring.
Mocking Barbie’s body proportions had become something of a sport in recent years, with viral stories abounding online about how clownish they would look if replicated on a real person. And her Coke-bottle-esque shape has long been held up as an emblem of persistent, unrealistic beauty standards for women.
By adding new body types, Mattel is aiming to change that conversation around one of its flagship brands.
“I don’t know why Mattel waited this long, but I’m glad they’re doing it,” said Arun Jain, a marketing professor at the University at Buffalo. “And it should help them.”
Barbie’s new body shapes are part of a broader effort by Mattel to recalibrate its toy assortment for a confluence of cultural changes, for a moment when America’s non-white population is growing; when plus-size clothing brands are challenging traditional standards of beauty; and when moms and dads alike are deeply conscious of gender-based stereotypes.
For example, this spring, Mattel plans to roll out a new line of toys called DC Super Hero Girls. The collection of action figures, which portrays DC Comics characters such as Wonder Woman, is meant to offer to girls an alternative to the uber-girly, dainty dolls that are typically marketed to them.
There is a clear dollars-and-cents incentive for Mattel to change up its iconic doll: The company is desperately looking to regain momentum after it lost the license to produce Disney Princess toys. Disney took that business to toymaking rival Hasbro, leaving Mattel without one of its key cash cows. There have been other signs of unease at the company, too, including a chief executive shake-up about a year ago after profits slumped and some of its big brands stumbled.
But, also, there have been signs for some time that the Barbie brand was not quite connecting with shoppers the way it once did. Barbie remains one of the best-selling dolls in the world, but sales have been soft recently.
By giving Barbie a variety of body types, Mattel is making a two-pronged gamble: It’s hoping to appeal directly to little girls who might be more enticed by a doll that looks more like them, and it’s hoping to convince parents to open their wallets by creating a feel-good, progressive halo around the dolls.
The company has also moved to revitalize Barbie by taking her high-tech: This holiday season, it began selling Hello Barbie, a doll that uses voice-recognition software to have conversations with a child.