I’m a Barbie girl, in the Barbie world
Life in plastic, it’s fantastic!
You can brush my hair, undress me everywhere
Imagination, life is your creation….
Children’s toys are ripe subject for debate. The debate covers issues such as gender (with Lego responding recently with a range marketed specifically for girls), race (why are Black dolls sold more cheaply?) and morality (playing violent games is associated with delayed empathy).
Psychology has had a voice in this debate. And this voice has been particularly loud, when it comes to Barbie dolls. This week, a news article reported that a doll called Lammily, is close to being produced; a doll that is based on the proportions of a typical US 19 year-old.
What would the psychological research evidence make of this? One of the key players in the ‘Barbie debate’ is Helgar Dittmar. Her research (e.g., Dittmar, Halliwell, & Ive, 2006) found that girls (aged 5-8 years) exposed to Barbie dolls reported lower body satisfaction and greater desire for a thinner body shape than girls exposed to an Emme doll (who has a UK dress size 16). The effect was particularly strong among first-grade children.
Other research by Anschutz and Engels (2010) suggests that girls aged 6-10 years who played with Barbie dolls, rather than an average-sized doll, or Lego, then ate significantly less than their counterparts playing with those toys. Sherman and Zurbriggen (2014) recently found that playing with a Barbie doll rather than a Mrs. Potato Head doll affected girls’ (aged 4–7 years) opinions of occupations that they could do themselves, especially when thinking about male-dominated careers.These girls also reported that they had fewer future career options available to them than boys.
These are small scale studies, with short-term outcome measures, of course. The taste-test immediately followed Anschultz and Engels’ testing, and body dissatisfaction was measured straight after exposure to the Barbie dolls by Dittmar and her colleagues. I know of many scientists, including me, who once played with Barbie dolls (so we can’t make large claims from the career aspirations of 4-7 year-olds…). The studies are also cross-sectional, rather than longitudinal in nature, so the long-term impact of playing with Barbie dolls is implied.
The control conditions (Mrs. Potato head, Emme, Lego) are also different across the studies above. This is important in terms of Lammily, because it is not only proportion that has been altered vis-a-vis Barbie. Her wardrobe and make-up will also be different, with less make-up, and a less extravagant closet. The above studies have focused (mainly) on body image in terms of Barbie’s unrealistic proportions. What if it isn’t only Barbie’s size that girls pay attention to, but her make up, and dress, too? In other words, to what counts as (physical) sex appeal in women? Is this more general concept what they aspire to? We know that clothes didn’t change opinion in Sherman and Zurbriggen’s study: their career aspirations were lower whether Barbie was dressed as a doctor or not. What would happen if studies looked at Emme in the different career roles, or Dr. Barbie’s effect on body dissatisfaction? Is it Barbie’s proportions or her overall appearance that matter more?
The existing evidence points to more positive outcomes for playing with Lammily, over Barbie, but exactly why that may be the case, remains to be seen.