Little Girls Losing Love for Barbie: Is Body Image to Blame?

As sales of too-perfect Mattel's Barbies shrink, the company's Monster High dolls find success in appealing to children's flaws

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Toymaker Mattel announced disappointing earnings yesterday, missing analysts projections by $0.10 per share. One reason profits were discouraging has been the decline in popularity of the iconic Barbie doll, sales of which fell 12% — the fourth quarter in a row that Barbie turnover declined year-over-year.

According to Felicia Hendrix, an analyst at Barclays, part of the reason for slumping Barbie sales is that toy buyers are increasingly attracted to Mattel’s other offerings like the American Girl Doll and the Monster High Dolls — a line of part-human, part-monster teens launched three years ago. Of course, this raises the question: Why, after more than 50 years of massive popularity, are little girls turning their backs on Barbie?

One possible explanation is body image. Traditionally, Barbie has been criticized for her too-thin frame, heavy makeup, and impossibly large cup-size, and some parents may now be deciding to give their little girls dolls that are, shall we say, a bit more flawed. Mary Shearman, a PhD candidate in gender, sexuality and women’s studies Simon Fraser University, speculated in an article in the Globe and Mail that Mattel may find themselves leaning on their non-Barbie dolls more and more as parents and children seek out more relatable dolls:

“There was a sense that you wanted to expose little girls to role models that were a little more diverse and not so stereotypical, so they tried to make Barbie active and gave her all kinds of activities to do and tried to make her more interesting than a beauty queen.”

(MORE: Barbie, Meet ‘Average Barbie’)

Parents have reason to be anxious. In a 2006 study at the University of Sussex, researchers compared the effects of exposing five-to-eight-year-old girls to images of Barbie versus images of Emme — a full-figured doll that has been endorsed by the American Dietetic Association to help promote positive body image. Those girls exposed to Barbie reported lower body esteem and a greater desire to be thin. The study concluded, “Early exposure to dolls epitomizing an unrealistically thin body ideal may damage girls’ body image, which would contribute to an increased risk of disordered eating and weight cycling.”

So what are the alternatives to Barbie? American Girl dolls look a lot more like, well, girls. They’re chubby-cheeked, freckled, and breast-less. But each doll costs over $100 with the average American Girl Doll owner spending over $500 per doll on accessories — a much steeper price tag than Barbie.

That leaves the wildly-popular Monster High dolls. Mattel asserts that they convey a healthy message to growing girls. “The message about the brand is really to celebrate your own freaky flaws, especially as bullying has become such a hot topic,” Cathy Cline, Mattel’s vice president of marketing, told NPR. The dolls thus tap into the well-established tween market of embracing one’s inner freak (see: Lady GagaGlee, and Twilight), and, if skyrocketing sales are any indication, parents are on-board with the message.

(MORE: A Mexico Barbie Doll Sparks Online Controversy)

While the Monster High message about self empowerment might assuage parents concerns, the Monster High dolls still sport a ridiculously small body frame. In fact, the popular Draculara may be even thinner than Barbie—the dolls arms are so skinny that you have to take off their hands to get their clothes on.

Adriana Valez, a staff writer for the blog Stir by CafeMom and a mom herself, points out, “The dolls don’t come in all different shapes and sizes — they’re all uniformly thin. So I love the idea that girls can have flaws, but I think we’re seeing some prescribed notions of what kinds of flaws are cool — crazy Frankenstein’s monster stitches and funky skin and eye color, certainly. Crazy clothes, for sure. But we’re not seeing the kinds of flaws girls’ typically feel badly about, or that others will bully them over: body fat, prominent nose, physical disabilities, etc.”

In the end, Mattel’s continuing production of unrealistically shaped dolls may not matter. Despite declining sales, Barbie is still the most widely sold doll in the world. As Hendrix says, “The Barbie formula has always worked. Every three-year-old girl in the world wants a Barbie doll.” While the new trend may be towards “flawed” dolls, it may be premature to predict the end of Barbie, or the rapid expansion of doll waistlines.

In fact, Valez says she would still purchase the Monster High dolls for a child, despite her concerns about their thinness. At least, Valez points out, the Monster High dolls are better than Barbie — they’re a step in the right direction. “A doll that doesn’t look like she’s trying to be an ideal woman is open to all kind of narrative possibilities. And isn’t that what we want our girls to do—to imagine all sorts of possibilities for their own lives?”

MORE: Guys and Dollars: How Groceries, Barbies, Fashion and More Are Being Marketed to Men

11 comments
berryls
berryls like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

"parents may now be deciding to give their little girls dolls that are, shall we say, a bit more flawed"

A bit less flawed would be more accurate.  A human proportioned as Barbie could not walk, or hold up her head.

WilfTarquin
WilfTarquin

Not exactly. Barbie isn't too thin, Barbie is _too curvy and too old_ for todays beauty ideal. Look at e.g. the body of the Bratz dolls to see current beauty ideals.

RekkaRiley
RekkaRiley

@VictoriaKeenan If my kid wants a doll, I'll make them one myself.

They have doll-making supplies at Michael's and Joann Fabrics, and a few local independent shops downtown.

We can make a nice mom-and-daughter (or son) occasion of picking the different parts from the store and putting them together.  My child can pick out the individual pieces that she or he wants.

If they want a dark brown head with a bright pink afro, one blue eye and one purple eye, and limbs of different skin tones?  

Sure, why not?  

And that will be the most special doll of all, because my child helped make it with their own two hands.

(Granted, I don't have kids yet, so this is all a huge maybe.  But, I do love making things myself, because when I do I can get exactly what I want!)

guz
guz like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 4 Like

"Every three-year-old girl in the world wants a Barbie doll" - what a crock. I used to work at Mattel, and I have a 9 year old daughter, and not only did she never want a Barbie, I never exposed to her to all the princess **** either. Now she's a strong, curious little lady who doesn't constantly obsess over clothes, looks, nails, and hair. I win.

Ocsicnarf
Ocsicnarf like.author.displayName 1 Like

Good job. Barbie is a both physical and behaviour model that some people follow but many reject as a role model for women.

mneedles
mneedles like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

My daughter wanted dolls for her 6th birthday last week...completely passed on the Barbie line--way too out of touch with the reality of real women in terms of shape, size, and appearence. 

RekkaRiley
RekkaRiley like.author.displayName 1 Like

@mneedles I always found Barbie creepy.

It's the Uncanny Valley:  she looks really close to human, but not quite close enough.  And because she's so close to human-looking, all the little details of her that make it obvious that she is NOT a human being become really obvious...and really terrifying.

From when I was 6 years old onwards, I never understood why no one else around me, my peers or the adults, seemed to notice how utterly disturbing Barbie was.

"I'm pretty sure people aren't supposed to look like that...please put it away.  Seriously, listen to me when I say I don't like it!  Stop shoving it in my face and telling me I'm supposed to like it, Grandma, because if you don't stop I will take it from and toss off the apartment balcony.  I don't care if Mom yells at me!"

auronlu
auronlu like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 4 Like

“The Barbie formula has always worked. Every three-year-old girl in the world wants a Barbie doll.”

Way to stereotype, you idiot.

I wanted a robot. When someone gave me a Barbie, I bit her feet off because they were inhuman. (This was during the "footbinder Barbie" phase when the feet were preternaturally arched and pointed to accomodate high heels). 

ValerieAnneGreen
ValerieAnneGreen like.author.displayName 1 Like

@auronlu I wanted Leggos , Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs because I wanted to build things.   Sadly I had to snitch my brothers.

RekkaRiley
RekkaRiley

@auronlu Barbies were just a huge waste of money for my family.

At most, I might take them outside to go play in the dirt with them for maybe...a few hours?  

Then I would cut up their hair, for reasons that I honestly don't remember, and they would lay in the bottom of the closet until someone tried to clean it.  If they gave them back to me, they would go back in the closet.  If my mom gave it back to me again, with a lecture about how I would be making my grandmother feel bad if I didn't express joy in the Barbie toy, it would...usually end up some place that I was certain my mother wouldn't find it.  

Maybe on the side of the road on the way to the airport to pick up Grandma.  Or out in the woods by our apartment complex.  Or in the dumpster.  Or in my little brother's bag.  Or, heck, I had no problem just handing the darn thing to one of the younger girls in the neighborhood. 

Barbies have always been creepy to me.  Actually, pretty much every doll that is recognizably human and has eyes that never close, has always been creepy to me.

(Maybe that was of the early signs of what turned out to be Aspergers with co-morbid AD/HD:  "Never plays with dolls, does not view dolls as miniature people, does not express empathy towards objects that resemble people, etc.")

Barbie is firmly in that Uncanny Valley, and even as young as 6 years old, I always wondered why no one else seemed to find it disturbing how this strange creature looked ALMOST human, but not quite close enough, and it had these unnaturally large, flat blue eyes that never closed.

 "Blink, for gods' sake!!!"