A clinical health psychologist shares her insights into the impact Barbie has on women’s and girls’ body imagery.
The movie “Barbie” caused a worldwide sensation with its pink theme and grossed $337 million in its opening weekend, a record for a film directed by a woman! Directed by Greta Gerwig, the film explores the legacy of the iconic doll, which is both seen as a feminist symbol and criticized for portraying a passive sex object.
For a long time, Barbie has been criticized for promoting unrealistic standards of beauty, particularly when it comes to slimness. It is accused of negatively affecting the self-esteem of girls and women. To get an expert opinion on Barbie’s effects, Nature interviewed Jennifer Webb, a clinical psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Webb, along with student Nataya Ford and another collaborator, published a study this year on the subject of Barbie and body image.
The study focuses on analyzing the impact of some of the image changes Barbie has undergone over the past few decades. Since 2015, Mattel, the maker of Barbie, has launched a line of dolls with highly flexible joints. These dolls can adopt active poses that make them appear more dynamic and less like mere objects. Then, in 2016, Mattel decided to expand the variety of body shapes of its iconic doll. Currently, you can buy a curvy medical barbie that also wears flats.
The Barbie film shows Mattel’s efforts to make the doll more like the girls who play with it. The story addresses the challenge of being authentic in a world filled with conflicting and often heavily gendered expectations. Popular actress Margot Robbie continues to be portrayed as a slim, white, blonde woman. Nature asked Webb for her opinion on whether Barbie has or can have a positive impact on the lives of girls and women. But first, let’s get to the really relevant question.
Did you play with Barbie as a kid?
During my childhood I was fortunate to have two younger sisters. Our parents always encouraged us to play with all kinds of toys. We had science toys, wrestlers and action figures, even barbies! As I got older, I also enjoyed playing with the barbies.
Barbie has been a doctor since 1973, but even in her scrubs, she was remarkably slim and had high-heeled feet. Do you think Barbie was good or bad for girls and women in general?
When it comes to tackling complex issues such as psychological research, we can find a limited number of studies conducted over the last 20 years that have addressed some of these issues. The lack of uniformity in study designs is mainly due to the fact that most of the research was conducted in western countries such as the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom.
If we take a closer look at these specific cuts, we can find evidence that exposure to skinny dolls like Barbie can affect perceptions of girls’ body image. We observe that in some cases, especially in the area of body image, people tend to have low self-esteem and adopt the ideal of slimness more easily as a reference.
This research also found that weight distortions develop at an early age. During the study, special attention was paid to girls between the ages of 3 and 10 years. They were shown dolls of different heights, including a larger-figure Barbie-like doll and the latest generation of the new Curvy Barbie. In the past, unfavorable traits were associated with taller dolls or curvier barbies.
This study shows that even very young girls are aware of the stigma attached to larger bodies. However, it doesn’t necessarily show that Barbie is solely responsible for creating this stigma. There are several social and cultural factors that contribute to negative perceptions of larger bodies. It is important to analyze all of these influences before attributing them exclusively to a particular doll.
It is important to note that these studies may lack certain contextual aspects. We do not have complete information about the children’s social environment, including their home, school and other activities. An interesting study was conducted that found a significant association between early exposure to Barbie games and the development of a greater desire for a slim physique in early adulthood.
While we cannot know all of the variables that may have contributed, it is possible to speculate. For example, playing with Barbie dolls at a young age could be related to caregivers or parents being more aware of food culture and how it influences children’s development.
However, it is important to remember that this is just a guess and more research is needed to establish precise connections on this topic. These caregivers talk about their bodies and experiences in different ways. However, it is important to note that we are only just beginning to engage with this topic and there is still much to discover. For now, we’re only scratching the surface of this complex topic.
Can these influences be separated?
A tripartite influence model that accounts for the interaction between media, family, and peers is often used in research. However, we currently recognize that the media component must also consider social networks as a relevant factor. In addition, we are beginning to see the importance of considering a fourth key area: healthcare delivery and public health messaging.
The study focused on a range of Barbie dolls with improved joint mobility, with the goal of encouraging physically active play. The participating university students were analyzed to determine their reaction to this proposal.
Made to Move Barbie dolls are highly posable, allowing for a more dynamic play experience. However, it is important to note that the first generation of these dolls still emphasized a very thin body type. It is interesting to note that these young women found these dolls to be a reliable reference to which to compare themselves.
What do you think of the film?
It’s great that you found the experience enjoyable. Importantly, Mattel has worked hard on its renewed vision of increasing the representation and variety of its products. They have taken some positive steps towards doll diversification, which is significant progress. It is positive and encouraging to see how inclusion is reflected in technological advances. A Down Syndrome doll was recently launched, marking an important step towards representation and respect for all people.
As a father, I was also able to appreciate the mother-daughter relationship portrayed in the film. One of the parts I enjoyed the most was watching these two protagonists come together. The film did an excellent job of combining funny moments with really moving social reflections.
When the film ended, I felt deep sympathy for all of us, regardless of our position. It is clear that we are united in this situation and we must support each other.
With information from Scientificamerican.com
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