Why Barbie Could Ruin Your Body Image AND Your Dreams Jennifer Still

For being an inanimate plastic doll, Barbie sure has been at the center of a whole lot of controversy. Mattel’s biggest superstar has been a part of the lives of little girls (and some boys!) for over half a century, and while all of the criticism about Barbie has been focused on the damage her unrealistic proportions can do to girls’ body image, that’s certainly not her only shortcoming, as we’re finally beginning to discover.

Since Barbie’s debut in 1959, she has held close to 150 careers including zoologist, astronaut and CEO – just to name a few. However, while her professional achievements should encourage the girls who play with her to strive for success in whatever fields they so choose to pursue as adults, a new study has found that in fact, Barbie may be having some pretty negative effects on enforcing stereotypical gender roles.

Scientists Aurora M. Sherman and Eileen L. Zurbriggen asked 37 American girls between the ages of four and seven to play with one of two toys: Barbie or Mr. Potato Head. After five minutes of play with her assigned toy, each girl was asked how many of ten listed jobs she could perform when grown up and how many a boy could do. The results were startling, to say the least.

From The Guardian:

After only five minutes of playing with Barbie, girls in our sample said that boys could do more jobs in the future than they could. Girls who played with Mrs Potato Head, on the other hand, responded that they could do about the same number of jobs as boys someday.

Ouch. That pretty much says it all, right? Regardless of what costume Barbie might don, the message she’s sending young girls is pretty clear: you should stick with the girly careers and leave the hard stuff to the boys. It’s a ridiculous notion to those of us who are able to see logic, but for young, impressionable girls, this can be incredibly damaging.

In fact, this study isn’t the only thing casting a less than favorable light on Barbie. Earlier this year, the doll teamed up with Sports Illustrated for the magazine’s Swimsuit Edition – a decision which left many confused on exactly what type of ideals Mattel was trying to promote. In addition, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has called for the Girl Scouts to end their affiliation with Barbie due to what was seen as a pretty obvious clash between the two.

It’s a sad to think that our young girls are being so negatively affected by what can seem like simple play. It’s a problem with a difficult solution, as we want to encourage our sisters, daughters and friends to explore their imaginations and enjoy their playtime while still imparting positive messages and empowering them to shoot for the stars. There’s nothing girls can’t achieve if they put their minds to it – it’s just a shame their toys seem to be telling them something different.

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  1. I love Barbie, and I still have my Barbies and my sister’s; I buy new ones from time to time when I can afford them. I have never understood why so many other girls and women have been so negatively affected by them. I wonder if part of why I’ve never seen the big deal is because I played with boys. When we played, Barbie spent more time in homemade clothes going on recon missions or heading out to blow up the enemy base than she spent going to parties or getting married to Ken. I guess this is what happens when you’re a little girl who likes dolls, but there just aren’t any other girls in the neighborhood with whom to play with them.

  2. I have never fully agreed with the whole Barbie causes emotional issues controversy. I have been overweight for as long as I remember. When I was younger I was self conscious. However, this wasn’t because I played with Barbie (I had tons of them by the way), it was because other kids picked on me. To this day I am overweight, and although I have my moments of self-consciousness, I am a pretty confident person. I have never had a problem showing my body…even when I was 5′ and 245 lbs…I have never even minded stripping down when necessary. Also, when I started college I started out as a chemistry major. I did switch to psychology, but that wasn’t because I didn’t feel like I couldn’t do it…it was because I genuienly wasn’t happy…not because Barbie made me do it…

  3. Oh give me a break. Barbies are awesome. My sister and I would spend hours playing with our Barbies… using a little something called IMAGINATION. Guess what – we both have brains and beauty. She completed her masters at one of the world’s top universities recently. I have a bachelor’s degree and have been in a successful career field for over 5 years now. Having kids glued to screens these days is what causes the real problems… not having them play with a DOLL. Next thing you’ll be saying how boys shouldn’t play with action figures because it’ll make them in violent fathers (or some similar ridiculousness). If anything, the constant airbrushing found in mainstream media causes harm… not a doll that is clearly not meant to be lifelike. LEAVE BARBIE ALONE!

    • Actually, I completely disagree with you. The success of two women who played with Barbies does not negate the fact that they give girls the perception that they can not do “boy” jobs. If you don’t mind my asking, what is that you and your sister do? I can almost statistically guarantee that it’s not in one of the STEM fields. While Barbie isn’t the only factor in this issue, you can not throw out this study that reflects the beliefs of children; little girls who say they can’t do all the same things that boys can. Can you honestly say that you felt like you could do all the same jobs as boys? I’m not ashamed to admit that I felt that way, and to some degree still feel that way. Barbie is very, very talented at being a baby-sitter, a princess, a mom, a mermaid, and even a doctor. Barbie is not talented at being an engineer, a biologist, a politician, a mathematician, or a graphic designer. It should be noted that when Barbie is a doctor, she is a pediatrician; one of the view medical careers where women are more common then men. When I was a little girl I wanted to be a mom and a teacher, I never considered math or science. As I got older my career choice has changed dramatically, but never once did I consider a career that involved any of the STEM fields. I grew up with the belief that I was horrible at science, technology, engineering, and math- even when my grades clearly demonstrated other wise. The doll isn’t lifelike, and as adults we know that, but when we were little girls playing with Barbie she was us all grown up, or some version of us that is. Children play out things that they see others doing, things that they want to do when they grow up so when you have a toy like Barbie that severely limits what you imagine yourself doing. Maybe you and your sister feel like Barbie had no negative impacts on you, but that doesn’t mean that every other girl experienced the same thing. Perhaps your parents did a good job at raising you to believe that you could do anything you wanted, but not every parent thinks to do that (not that it makes them bad parents). My point is just that you can’t make a universal statement about something based on two people when there is a scientific study done that explicitly produces the exact opposite answer. Barbie isn’t evil, but she needs some work done. Life is about progress, and making the world a better place. We can change Barbie to reflect a better future for girls and women by giving her a more realistic shape and some new exciting careers that are male dominated. If anyone can take over a male hierarchy I think the little girl in all of us can agree it’s Barbie because like you said, playing with Barbie is about using your imagination. Someday soon maybe a little girl can imagine that her Barbie is the lead researcher in a lab filled entirely with women who are going to find the cure to cancer.

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