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.”

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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.

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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?”

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