(WOMENSENEWS)–I have worked with eating disorders for 29 years, and my clients often cite Barbie as an early trigger. So I’d be happy to see Barbie slip off the toy shelves and fade into nostalgic mass memory.
Since she turns 56 in the spring, maybe her next accessory should be a luxury retirement house.
It could happen: Barbie’s sales have been suffering while Disney Princess, American Girl, and Zombie doll sales seem to be getting stronger.
Or maybe Barbie just needs new contours.
Look what happened earlier this year when artist Nikcolay Lamm offered a virtual rendition of Barbie with the proportions of an average 19-year-old woman. The 3-D model went viral. Lamm, who at one point struggled with an eating disorder, set up a Kickstarter account and raised $109,000.00 in the first 24 hours, enough money put the doll into small-scale production in November.
Barbie has been simultaneously adored and maligned for years. Maybe the tide is turning and American consumers are becoming more concerned with helping girls have a healthy body image.
Recently Aaron Paul, a 35 year old actor, recited Barbie’s anorexic proportions as part of his recent run in with Florida mom Susan Schrivjer, whose successful petition convinced Toys"R"Us to pull Breaking Bad action figures from their adult section. "Wait, so ToysRUs pulled all of the Breaking Bad figures from their shelves and still sells Barbie? Hmmm…I wonder what is more damaging?" Paul tweeted.
Plenty of anecdotal evidence, and even research, supports Paul’s claim that Barbie might be damaging to little girls.
Unrealistic Body Ideal
Early exposure to an unrealistically thin body ideal may damage girls’ body image and lower self-image, and both factors can lead to eating disorders. That’s what researchers at the University of Sussex found after they studied the effects of 162 girls ages 5-8 playing with thin dolls. The same researchers unexpectedly found that older girls, who were less affected by thin dolls, reacted negatively to normal sized dolls, suggesting that early exposure to thin dolls like Barbie could be lasting.
A research study can’t conclude that one factor causes an eating disorder. Poor body image is linked to self-concept, which can lead to body dysmorphic disorder, a precursor to eating disorders. Body image, which forms around age 15, is difficult to change.
Tri-Delta, a national women’s fraternity with headquarters in Arlington, Texas, has an award winning evidence-based body image education program that cites some startling statistics: 81 percent of 10 year olds are afraid of becoming fat. Fifty four percent of women would rather be hit by a truck than be fat. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of these same girls have multiple Barbie dolls in their bedrooms.
Mattel’s 1959 introduction of Barbie was revolutionary because it helped girls imagine a wider range of roles. Instead of only being a mother, which is still an important role, girls began to think of themselves as fashionable and even powerful. Mattel enlarged those roles by portraying Barbie in a variety of professions.
But the world was a different place in 1959, when full-figured women like Marilyn Monroe defined beauty. At the time, it didn’t matter that Barbie was so skinny because thinness wasn’t glorified. Barbie was big, but Marilyn Monroe and other full-figured Hollywood stars were bigger.
Heavier Cultural Freight
Barbie doesn’t cause eating disorders. But she is one of the today’s many cultural signposts toward skinny, making her impact greater than it was years ago. Body image shifted dramatically in the 1970s when Twiggy, a thin fashion model, became an overnight sensation. Thin cultural icons increased exponentially after that.
When I was a kid, my Barbie had a scale that read a number that put her body mass index in the anorexic range. I remember becoming concerned when my weight reached that number, even though it was low for my height. Years later, I realized I was triggered because I weighed more than Barbie, who wasn’t real.
About 10 million American women struggle with an eating disorder, more than the 2.8 million women who have or have had breast cancer. Eating disorders have a 10 to 20 percent mortality rate. Such deadly illnesses deserve support.
A friend pointed out that Barbie’s tiny waist allows designers to adorn her with lots of fabric. OK. But does that justify the price that girls who admire her may pay?
Let’s help little girls by putting a wider variety of toys in their homes.
Annetta Ramsay, Ph.D., is a nationally certified and licensed professional counselor who has specialized in the treatment of eating disorders for 29 years. She directs the Chrysalis Treatment Program in Denton, Texas. This piece was written for the Op-Ed Project’s Public Voices Fellowship at Texas Woman’s University.