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The two things that could keep Barbie’s evolution from being the success it should be


Barbie’s recent overhaul is big news and good news because the unattainable, narrow beauty ideals to which she’s contributed have needed to be challenged and dismantled for decades. But though her transformation is long overdue, there still might be some challenges to us–and our children–accepting it.

For years, Barbie has symbolized everything that women (and men) are taught by our pop culture to value and covet—thinness, whiteness and affluence (have you seen the latest version of her Dreamhouse?!).  Barbie’s friends have always been “less than” and in her shadow, implying that Barbie is the one who deserves the spotlight.  And this “othering” of every other shape that women come in has always been at the center of the Barbie controversy.  “She’s been–literally–a narrow and impossible image of beauty for so long,” said Jean Kilbourne, a feminist activist and the creator of the film series titled Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women. The creation of the new doll line–with its three new body types: Petite, Tall and Curvy– is a real chance to make a real difference in the ideals girls are exposed to early on. But for it to work, we’re going to need to make these changes:

We need to let go of the negative associations we have with the word “Curvy”: We’re living in a culture that doesn’t know where it stands when it comes to women’s bodies and beauty ideals these days. In the past few years, talk about “fat shaming” and hashtags like #BodyPositive have cropped up just about everywhere—and that’s a great thing. But the Body Acceptance movement’s mainstream presence is somewhat new and unfolding in real time. As a result, there are plenty of confusing messages. For instance, when Aerie (American Eagle’s lingerie/loungewear company) recently released photos of its new plus-size spokeswoman in a pink string bikini, the Internet hailed it as an empowering affirmation of body authenticity. But when singer Selena Gomez wore virtually the same bikini last spring, she was so savagely shamed online for gaining weight that she admitted to needing therapy to deal with aftermath. Jess Weiner, a branding expert who works with companies including Dove, Disney and Mattel to create empowering messaging for girls, isn’t surprised we’re having such a tough time. “We’re in a messy, transitional phase right now where we’re all figuring this stuff out as we go,” she says. “There’s progress, but even for adults, it can still be uncomfortable to talk about body image issues.”

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Unfortunately, these days the word curvy often stands in for “fat” or large, and it’s no longer shocking to read about parents putting their young daughters on diets or scheduling them for plastic surgeries. Yet Mattel is hoping parents will purchase dolls that could incite shame in a recipient who could interpret the message as “You don’t look like a supermodel in a world where that’s important.”  In other words, there’s a risk that the dolls intended to bolster body confidence could actually trigger body loathing in girls just as the originals have.  “It could happen,” says Jen Hartstein, Psy.D, author of Princess Recovery: A How-To Guide to Raising Strong, Empowered Girls Who Can Create Their Own Happily Ever Afters who consulted with Mattel on Barbie’s reinvention. “But that reaction would also speak volumes about the weight, beauty and appearance biases that the parents have transmitted to their kids.” What we really need to do right now, adds Dr. Hartstein, is listen to what girls like, not foist on them what we think—because they might just surprise us.  “And the more positive we can encourage girls to be towards a variety of body types, the healthier choices they will make for themselves over time,” says Dr. Hartstein.

Which leads to another big hurdle.

We have to value progress over perfection: Some parents are set to write off Barbie’s evolution as insignificant. “It’s just a doll” and “I played with the original Barbie and my self-esteem is fine” are two common dismissals.  In fact, one Maryland mom to a 7-year-old girl puts it like this: “There’s no chance I’d buy one of the new dolls for my daughter because the concept [of Barbie needing different body shapes] is utterly ridiculous.”

Other critics argue that Barbie’s makeover might have more to do with a grab for market share than concern for its consumers’ preferences and well-being–especially since Mattel posted a 20 percent drop in the doll’s sales between 2012 and 2014 alone. “Mattel’s business is making money,” says Tim Kremer, a toy industry entrepreneur and veteran. “They’re trying hard to adapt and find their niche.”

Sadly, there are also complaints that Mattel didn’t get real enough when it created the new body type options. “The curvy doll might be bigger, but her shape is still perfectly hourglass,” says Chris Huntley, a father of three girls in San Diego, CA. “It’s like they’re saying it’s fine to be larger as long as you resemble Marilyn Monroe.”

Sigh. Maybe yes to all of the above, but consider the upshot:  “For decades, women have desperately fought for girls to have more options and choices–and to not just accept that what they see in mainstream pop culture is the way they have to be,” says Nancy Gruver, a longtime advocate for positive girl culture and the founder of New Moon, a community for girls and parents to help them stay close and find support during the tween and teen years. And now it’s happening.

Plus, surely we can all agree that the Barbie’s new body types are at least a start. And we can commit to helping make them a success, especially since their potential is so great. Says Gruver: “Boiled down, the real message that’s delivered by the broader range of dolls is that they are loveable, they are real, and they are worthy. They’re equal.”

And so are the girls who look like them.

Audrey D. Brashich is the author of All Made Up: A Girl’s Guide to Seeing Through Celebrity Hype and Celebrating Real Beauty. She lives in Vancouver, British Columbia and New York City. Find her on Twitter @AudreyBrashich.

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