The Elsa doll has ended Barbie’s 11-year streak as the holiday season’s top toy for girls. Elsa — Disney’s newest heroine — is riding a wave of popularity following her debut in the blockbuster movie “Frozen.” But even before the Snow Queen appeared on the big screen, Barbie was in trouble. Her sales dropped 6 percent last year, with critics arguing that she is a bad influence on young girls because of her shape — the tiny waist, super-long legs, small feet and giant head.
But focusing on Barbie’s dimensions really misses the point of the doll. Ruth Handler, Barbie’s creator, explained her vision this way:
“My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be. Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.”
Barbie’s body measurements never crossed my mind when I was a kid. I was too busy planning how to expand her successful hair salon under our dining room banquette without my mother noticing. My Barbie was a badass. She was an entrepreneur before I knew what that meant. She even freelanced as a National Geographic photographer on the side (when the weather was good enough to play outside). If Barbie had body-image issues, I didn’t know it. For me, she was infinitely talented and fiercely independent — the perfect canvass for all the aspirations a young feminist could conceive.
Today’s other popular dolls fall far short when it comes to offering our daughters that same empowering freedom. Let’s survey the options: Each Monster High doll comes with a preset identity and style, confined to teenage interests and high-school values. If body image is your concern, the Bratz dolls’ waist-to-head ratio is absurd. And Elsa comes with a back story detailed in a two-hour movie. She can’t own a hair salon or take photos of the Amazon rain forest. She can’t even wear jeans. She’s a Snow Queen who lives in solitude in an ice castle.
Elsa’s story has already been written — by adults. Storylines have become increasingly popular in children’s toys, and that’s a bad thing. They rob children of the creative aspirations that playtime should inspire. Barbie, on the other hand, exists to allow young girls to explore life’s possibilities. Ruth Handler created the doll in 1959 when she observed her daughter playing make-believe with paper dolls, imagining herself as a grownup. Most of the three-dimensional models on the market back then were babies and toddlers; Handler realized girls’ imaginations were craving a more adult-looking vessel.
That grown-up appearance is what most critics get hung up on. But Barbie has never been the one-dimensional girl those critics claim she is – all looks, no substance. Her first careers were in fashion, but she quickly expanded into the sciences, becoming an astronaut in 1965, four years before a man set foot on the moon. Since then, she has had nearly 150 careers. Handler made a widely successful business out of the idea that little girls could aspire to be whatever they wanted. We’re so focused on Barbie’s tiny waist that we’re forgetting how cool that is.
So, what of Barbie’s waist? Of course, her measurements are not found on any human woman – and yes, it’s damaging when her shape becomes what our daughters aspire to. Some research validates the idea that Barbie negatively affects girls’ self esteem by modeling an unattainable body type. But if we depend on dolls to teach our kids about body image, we are going to be sorely disappointed. Once they graduate from babydolls, the choices for realistic models are slim. Bratz and Monster High dolls’ waists are even narrower than Barbie’s. Further, our daughters aren’t absorbing Barbie’s image in a vacuum. The truth is, our children are more attentive to us — their parents — than their toys when it comes to developing their own body image. I have memories of my mother wrapping herself in Saran Wrap from head-to-toe to sweat off extra weight and following the Scarsdale Diet for months on end. She was obsessed with being slender. I received the message that fat was bad, loud and clear – but not from Barbie.
Parents have a responsibility to ensure that their children are surrounded by a wide-array of body types so they can learn acceptance. We also have a responsibility to model body-acceptance so our children’s own self-esteem won’t crumble at the site of a doll with a small waist. I fully support the effort to make dolls with more realistic characteristics, and I will buy those for my daughter, too. But that does not replace my responsibility to directly instill in her a healthy body image.
It is worth noting that society does not dissect male dolls in this way. No one is rushing to make Ken or other male figures less muscular. Like Barbie, Ken’s body shape wasn’t the focus of my imaginary play as a kid. He was simply Barbie’s “boyfriend.” I didn’t really know what that role entailed, but I did know that Barbie didn’t let anyone drive her purple Camaro. She always drove on their dates and picked the destination. Because Ken wasn’t the “prince” or “white knight”, my Barbie could reflect my individuality and independence.
In our obsession with Barbie’s size, we’re overlooking what she represents to the children who play with her – endless possibility. Her role is to be a creative vessel for young girls to explore their own, personal ambitions. We shouldn’t impede their imaginations with our focus on what that vessel should look like and what her storyline should be. Barbie is more than a princess. She is more than a protagonist in a fairy tale. She’s a pathfinder, a pioneer and a feminist icon in her own right.
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