Blaming Barbie

Barbie: Friend or foe?
Barbie: Friend or foe? 

Is Barbie really to blame for our lifelong body image woes or do we not give children enough credit for their ability to distinguish make believe from reality?

My three year old daughter has embarked on a relentless campaign to build a small army of Barbie dolls. She lovingly refers to them as “her girls.” I’d neither encouraged nor discouraged the undeniably popular doll. But she eventually set eyes on one of the ageless blonde beauties from my own childhood. The smile was still frozen on that glamorous face despite being dumped suddenly by me all those years ago. My daughter was hooked. I didn’t see it as a big deal. Until I had a friend visit recently. She spent the afternoon furiously wrestling the dolls from her own daughter’s tiny, but determined, hands. As the afternoon wore on, I started to question my ambivalence.

It’s not just my lounge room that has been the scene of an anti-Barbie protest in recent times. A couple of months ago a group of feminists burned Barbie dolls and disrupted the opening of a life-size Barbie dream house exhibition in Berlin. Their main gripe, nothing new, was that Barbie is an unhealthy role model. She’s too thin. Too beautiful. In the past fortnight, another strike against Barbie has been circulating on social media. An image, created by artist Nickolay Lamm, depicts Barbie next to an image of what she should look like as a “healthy, beautiful 19 year old woman.” The stark contrast between Barbie and Lamm’s image tells us what we already know. No one really looks like a Barbie doll. In my daughter’s own words, “she’s pretend.”

My daughter seems quite adept at distinguishing pretend from real; she chides me when I get a little too enthusiastic about devouring the pretend food she makes in her toy kitchen. “It’s not real Mummy, you don’t really eat it,” she reminds me. It’s an important lesson, distinguishing fantasy and reality. She’ll need to be able to do that later in life, when no amount of helicopter parenting will shield her from the relentlessly young, thin and airbrushed female image that dominates many sections of the media. Psychologist Jacqui Manning agrees and says, “children don’t look at Barbie and think that’s what real people look like, much as they don’t think elephants can talk and ride bikes … the real danger comes when they do look around at real people in magazines, on music videos and in advertising and see images of women continually being praised for being sexy, unrealistically thin or more often both.”

With talk of toy kitchens and Barbie dolls, it may seem that we’ve wound back the clock to Barbie’s late 1950’s birthday in our house. But my daughter is also copying her Dad busily preparing dinner in the kitchen. She plays with cars and plenty of gender neutral toys. And even Barbie herself has made an effort to keep up with the march against gender stereotyping. She’s a professional these days. A pet vet, an architect, a teacher. She’s smart. She’s even not afraid to enter the male-dominated world of engineering.

But it’s not her brains that get her into trouble. It’s that killer body. And the effect it may have on body image and, consequently, self-esteem, eating habits and weight. Lamm, along with his portrait of the real Barbie, cites research that he says shows “Barbie may lead to heightened body dissatisfaction among young girls and unhealthy eating behaviours.” This is serious stuff when you consider the statistics. Sixty-eight percent of 15 year old girls report being “on a diet”, 15% of women experience an eating disorder at some stage of their life and only 22% of women in the normal weight range feel satisfied with their body.

My daughter seems quite adept at distinguishing pretend from real ...

But Barbie is just part of the body image puzzle. The thin and beautiful message is everywhere. A closer look at the research Lamm cites also reveals several limitations. The study tested immediate short term effects on body image only. The researchers found that exposure to a Barbie doll had no effect on body image for girls aged 7 and 8 years but, surprisingly, exposure to an “Emme doll” (a full-figured doll whose body shape represents an Australian size 18) caused a significant desire to be thinner. The researchers themselves noted several limitations including the need to further examine the impact of levels of body satisfaction prior to exposure to Barbie dolls.

So what can we do, as parents, to encourage our children to develop a healthy body image? Manning says that it is okay for Barbie, a popular and useful toy for imaginary play, to remain on toy shelves. Instead, we should look at ourselves. She says, “we are sometimes surprised by how much our children mimic and copy us: our language, our self-talk and our actions. Even if we say something once, we can often hear our children repeating this in their play.” She also says we should place more emphasis on how our children’s bodies work rather than how they look; images in the media “often aren’t about how amazing their bodies are for being strong and running fast.” If we have negative feelings about our own body, Manning says we should try to stay silent on this in front of our children. “Don’t look in the mirror too much with a frown on your face, don’t tut-tut yourself as you squeeze a centimetre of excess flesh, be mindful. Say positive things about how you look.” To encourage talk with our children about body image, Manning says going for a walk or bike ride is ideal. Not only is it a direct way to boost mood and health but it may encourage children to talk. “Children are more apt to chat to you about their thoughts and feelings if you are doing an activity rather than sitting down to talk.”

Despite the indications that Barbie is only a tiny piece of a complex problem, my daughter’s army of “girls” continued to trouble me. I couldn’t stop thinking about a comment from model Cindy Jackson that was mentioned in the research cited by Lamm: “I looked at a Barbie doll at age six and said, ‘This is what I want to look like’”. So, to put the matter to rest, I decided to conduct my own little social experiment. As Miss 3 was happily playing with her “girls”, I casually asked her who she wanted to look like when she grew up. Her answer floored me. “I want to look like Daddy when I grow up,” she said with a huge grin. Daddy, a 40-something male with olive skin and black curly hair, is Barbie’s antithesis. So while my Barbie-induced body image fears have been allayed for now, her answer may have raised more questions than it answers. I guess that’s what happens when you conduct a social experiment with a three year old.