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Barbie is Back: Girls Body Image and a Doll

Growing up in the 1960’s every girl whose parents could afford one had a Barbie. Except me. My mother did not approve. ‘No real woman looks like that’, she said, ‘and I’m not having my daughters believe that’s all a woman has to aspire to’.

Barbie appeared in 1959 based on a 1955 German doll called Bild-Lilli, who was marketed to men. By 1961 Barbie had a boyfriend, Ken, and a vast wardrobe which was essential given that she came in a bathing suit. In many respects Barbie became the first influencer of young women modelling how they should look, wear and live. With the arrival of the Barbie Movie, which aims to put a ‘feminist twist’ on the story, it is interesting to consider the impact the doll had on young women and particularly their view of their bodies.

A 2006 paper Does Barbie Make Girls Want to be Thin? by Dittmar et al, explored the possibility that Barbie was responsible for young girls’ body dissatisfaction. They note that ‘Barbie’s body proportions, as a cultural icon of female beauty, have received much criticism and empirical studies confirm that her body proportions are unrealistic, unattainable, and unhealthy’. Fewer than 1 in 100,000 women share her body proportions with a waist 39% smaller than that of anorexic patients, and body weight so low as to prevent menstruation. In this study 5-8-year-old girls were exposed to images of Barbie, Emme (a doll equivalent to Australian size 10)  or no dolls. The authors’ results showed that young girls reported heightened body dissatisfaction following exposure to the Barbie image but not the others and that the ‘ultra thin images not only lowered young girls’ body esteem but also decreased their satisfaction with their actual body size, making them desire a thinner body.’ These results appeared in 5 ½ -year-olds and were most pronounced in 6 ½ – 7 ½ -year-olds.

A more recent study by Boothroyd in 2020 explored whether playing with Barbie and another ultra-thin doll created a shift in children’s visual perception of their ideal body size and increase in body dissatisfaction relative to those who played with realistic child-like dolls. Forty-six girls aged 5 – 10 years participated in the study and results showed a significant reduction in their ideal body size and an increase in body dissatisfaction for those playing with the ultra-thin dolls relative to girls who had played with realistic weight dolls. These effects were not immediately countered by play with the more realistic dolls or cars.

Girls’ body dissatisfaction is multi-layered, including the influence of parents, peers, school, and wider social elements. It is not possible to ‘blame’ Barbie for eating disorders, however the studies do suggest ultra-thin toys are one detrimental element. It’s a very good thing that Margot Robbie, star of the movie, has dimensions that match those of real women. Seems like mother was right.


Dittmar, H. Halliwell, E. and Ive, S. Does Barbie Make Girls Want to Be Thin? The Effect of Experimental Exposure to Images of Dolls on the Body Image of 5- 8-Year-Old Girls Developmental Psychology 2006, Vol. 42, No. 2, 283–292

Boothroyda, L., Tovée. M. Evans E. Can realistic dolls protect body satisfaction in young girls? Body Image Vol 37,June 2021 p172-18

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