New "diverse" Barbies blur lines between fun toy, bad role model

Credit: Yue Yin/ Credit: Yue Yin/
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Dolls were my favorite toy growing up. I would spend hours playing with them, dressing them up, brushing their hair, and making up stories about them with my sisters in my bedroom. I played with my dolls longer than I would let people know, for fear that I would be mocked.

Because dolls have been such a natural part of my life, I have always been hesitant to accept the social stigma around them. I do understand and vehemently oppose the way that certain dolls have the potential to affect the way a child views his or her body. However, the way to combat these damaging effects is to draw a clear distinction between toys and role models.

Dolls have been accused of being creepy, patronizing and gender specific, as well as of inflicting unfair ideas of body image on young minds. Mattel’s Barbie doll is undoubtedly the biggest culprit in the argument that dolls give young girls a skewed perception of body image. For as long as Barbie dolls have existed they have made an ironic statement about what the perfect female looks like, an impression that has deeply affected and altered the lives of many young girls.

Barbie dolls tell a girl that she must be tall and skinny, yet curvaceous in the right places. She must have a long neck, minuscule waist and wear a DD cup. Should the measurements of a Barbie doll be applied to a real human she would not have enough room for all of her organs: she would be unable to stand upright, lift her head, or use her hand to pick up anything heavier than a pencil. This, says Mattel, is the perfect woman; a woman who, should she exist in the real world, would be crippled and deformed by her own contrived beauty.

The traditional blonde-haired, blue-eyed, pale-skinned Barbie has existed for generations. Society has gone back and forth admiring and mocking the doll, but the model has been the standard for the company for nearly a half-century. But this is all about to change.

Mattel recently released a statement that Barbie dolls are now to be diversified. Dolls bearing the descriptions “Petite,” “Tall,” and “Curvy” will now be filling the shelves along with dolls of a wider range of skin tones, eye and hair colors, and “face sculpts.” Upon hearing this news, one might be thrilled that after all this time Mattel is finally recognizing the absurdity of the “perfect woman” their company has worked so hard to create. But on second thought, what does it make a child think when his or her body can be classified with a neat little label?

I suppose that I would be classified as petite. But what does that even mean? So I’m on the smaller end of things height and bust-wise; I may not have the curves or tall stature of my friends, but who cares? Why should what my body looks like define me? Because of the way my body is made am I only allowed to play with dolls that most closely match my body description?

I’ve never felt that I need to look just like my doll because I viewed my dolls as toys, not some model to aspire to. By diversifying in a box and classifying the range of dolls they manufacture, Mattel is encouraging this misconception that you should look like your toy. If you are tall, buy the “Tall” doll and strive to look like her. If you are “Curvy,” you better look like Mattel’s version of “Curvy.” Before, Barbie was an unattainable ideal with no relation to most girls’ realities, but the new claims about diversity make the unrealistic beauty standards even more corrosive.

Everyone is different. Every person has their own unique nuances to their body. By creating these new styles of dolls to “increase diversity,” Mattel is doing nothing more than providing a few more options of cookie cutters to force a woman into. The source of the problem here is not with Mattel really, but the fact that society will allow a toy company to dictate what the perfect female body looks like. Barbie dolls are toys. That is always how I thought of them. Even at a young age I recognized the distinction between imagination and reality and I think most children would, too, if not for outside influences.

The true problem is that adults have not gotten it out of their heads that the perfect body is a Barbie doll. Look at any female model in a catalog and you will have confirmation of this. So perhaps it is wrong on some levels to crucify Mattel for creating misconceptions body image, because the doll alone is not the biggest of the problems. The Barbie doll is a creation that is far from progressive in appearance, but the true problem lies in the fact that the grownups still can not figure out the difference between reality and playing pretend.