Last week, Time reported a significant change for the Barbie brand: Beginning in March, shoppers will be able to choose from three new Barbie body shapes. In addition to the original model, the “Fashionistas” line of Barbies will offer the doll in tall, petite and curvy forms. But why?
For decades, Barbie has endured more criticism than perhaps any other toy. Her critics’ chief complaint (although not their only one): Barbie’s exaggeratedly thin body shape, which various studies have found can harm girls’ body images and cause them to restrict their eating.
Against such complaints, the company behind Barbie, Mattel, had a long history of standing its ground. As recently as February 2014, Mattel executives rebuffed critics by asserting that girls’ body image problems come from their mothers and peers — not their dolls.
But today’s parents are increasingly well informed. Owing to this factor and increased competition from other fashion doll brands, Barbie’s worldwide sales have dropped annually since 2012, with sales down 14 percent in the most recent quarter alone. Simultaneously, “Frozen” dolls, which have empowering backstories that don’t center on physical appearance, quickly rose to the top.
That’s bad news for a toy that was the world’s top doll for more than 40 years, and that a decade ago was still the number one girls’ brand worldwide.
At the same time, indie brands have taken risks and proved there is demand for fashion dolls that defy the body molds of the Barbies and Disney princesses. For example, the Lammily fashion doll, with the body proportions of an average 19-year-old woman (which “curvy” Barbie brings to mind), was a crowdfunding success story in 2014. Likewise, Lottie has a body shape based on the average dimensions of a 9-year-old child (evoking the proportions of “petite” Barbie). Since her introduction in 2012, Lottie has received more than 20 international toy awards and is now available in 30 countries.
Mattel’s announcement about the new Barbie body types may have been inevitable, then. To compete in today’s market, Mattel had to bring Barbie up to date. By offering three new body molds less than a year after introducing a racially diverse range of skin tones, facial shapes, hairstyles and eye colors, Mattel appears to be making a good-faith effort to respond to critics not by rebuffing them but by accepting their concerns as valid.
Given Mattel’s history, the news came as a surprise and garnered significant publicity for Barbie, much of it positive. “Curvy Barbie is way overdue,” gushed a Mashable headline. “I needed her long ago.” People quoted Queen Latifah remarking, “This is groundbreaking.” A humor piece written in the voice of Barbie’s boyfriend, Ken, for Time concludes with a sales pitch: Barbie “loves all of you so much she is willing to change herself, right along with your changing nation. Can you celebrate her resilience, by purchasing her, in several versions?”
But Mattel’s progress with its Fashionistas collection — the only one of Barbie’s two-dozen themes to have the progressive elements the company is now being lauded for — does not mean Barbie is free of all problematic issues.
For example, Barbie as a brand still overemphasizes beauty. Although some Barbies have careers, the doll’s basic story and appeal is about fashion, beauty and physical appearance, at the expense of other potential interests or passions. (This, by the way, is something the Lottie dolls in particular have handled nicely. Each Lottie doll has an interest-based identity, such as “Stargazer Lottie,” “Kawaii Karate Lottie,” “Fossil Hunter Lottie,” “Pirate Queen Lottie” and so on.) By adding Barbie’s three new body types and racially diverse characteristics into the fashion-centric “Fashionistas” line, Barbie reinforces the message that regardless of a girl’s shape or color, her appearance should still be at the forefront of her identity — a regressive idea that is not communicated in equal measure to boys, and that many parents are desperate to help their daughters escape, as efforts by grass-roots organizations such as Let Toys Be Toys illustrate.
Barbie’s over-emphasis on appearance is made worse by Mattel’s history of gaffes that have portrayed the character as unintelligent. From the 1992 Teen Talk Barbie that used to say, “Math class is tough!” to the more recent “I Can Be A Computer Engineer!” Barbie picture book, in which Barbie needed her male classmates to help her code her computer science project, Barbie’s other personas have been undercut repeatedly. Would Astronaut Barbie really have such struggles in STEM classes?
Another ongoing concern is that Barbies aren’t age-appropriate for the 3- to 7-year-old girls they’re marketed to now. They were originally meant for 9- to 12-year-old girls. Thanks to the phenomenon of age compression, however, today’s children move through play stages more quickly than ever, and most girls outgrow Barbie by age 7. To survive despite a shrinking market share, Mattel had to redirect its Barbie marketing efforts toward preschoolers — even though 3-year-olds usually lack the fine motor skills necessary to dress and undress fashion dolls.
Should young girls even be playing with an exaggeratedly buxom adult-bodied fashion doll in the first place? After all, Barbie was originally modeled on an adult novelty toy produced in Germany, popular as a gag gift at bachelor parties. With this background in mind, it’s understandable that some parents hesitate to offer impressionable preschoolers a doll whose only form to date has been — and whose most common form moving forward will still be — so outrageously sexualized.
Finally, Barbie has a problematic history of buying its way into pro-girl spaces. Mattel has long appropriated girl empowerment to sell more dolls, via sponsorships of organizations such as the Girl Scouts — which the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood raised awareness of with its #BetterThanBarbie hashtag — and Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day. Those who are aware of this pattern are concerned that these aren’t acts of altruism, but rather “goodwashing” efforts meant to insert Barbie into noncommercial spaces where she doesn’t belong.
Barbie’s new body types will surely satisfy many parents’ concerns. I hope these parents vote with their dollars and prove once and for all that there’s a strong market for fashion dolls with a healthier physique. I also hope that brick-and-mortar retailers stock a wide range of Fashionistas Barbies, making the new dolls available as a choice for consumers in the toy aisles. After all, stores ultimately decide which dolls they will carry, and if they leave curvy Barbie at Mattel headquarters, none of the positive messages the new dolls are conveying will make it to customers.
At the same time, Barbie’s other issues remain unresolved. And with dolls such as Lottie and Lammily available to buy instead, plenty of parents will be more than justified in forgoing Barbie altogether.
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