Growing up, one thing never too scarce in my home were Barbie dolls. Being an only child who was a little on the shy side, Barbie dolls were sisters, companions – and when my imagination ran wild – students, patients and even clients in my make-believe beauty salon. My mother always made sure that my Barbies were equipped with all of life’s essentials: a two story mansion complete with real running water, three BMW Convertibles, a wardrobe fit for any fashionista and a stable man named Ken. Birthdays were always Barbie themed, bedroom decor dripped in pink and if anything wasn’t Barbie, then it was completely unacceptable. Yes, I considered myself a Barbie girl, simply living in a Barbie world.
But recently, my childhood staple has undergone some major changes – changes that many argue are for the better.
Even though Barbie may have been the biggest selling toy for young girls through the years, the doll always managed to be surrounded by controversy. Whether it be her unrealistic waistline or lack in career opportunities, the masses saw Barbie as an anti-feminist, teaching young girls all the wrong messages. But in their latest attempt to win the hearts of families back, Barbie’s manufacturer, Mattel, announced that a new line of inclusive dolls will soon dominate toy aisles. According to the company, #TheDollEvolves from the typical 6 foot, 100 pound blonde, and into a real woman with realistic features and proportions. But don’t panic! While Barbie will now have curvy, tall and petite figures, a variety of hair colors, eye colors and ethnicities – the standard white, thin, blonde and busty Barbie will still exist. But now, kids (and parents) have a more diverse set of options when choosing which doll to take home. For someone who has received an ample amount of criticism in her day, it indeed looks as though Barbie has finally caught up with the times and is making a change for the better.
But can a few cosmetic changes save society?
There is no denying that Barbie has contributed to the unrealistic “ideal body” image with which children have been brought up. However, the problem with this culture goes far beyond the doll’s body.
Generations of young children have played with, or have been exposed to, a doll that no human being could truly ever look like. But at the same time, they have been bombarded with unrealistic images of the female body through the media and through advertising, where most bodies have been adjusted through surgical manipulations or digital enhancements. We may underestimate the youth, but in reality, kids are living and breathing sponges. They mimic what they see, and they repeat what they hear. Blonde is sexier than brunette; light skin is more attractive than dark; blue eyes are more piercing than brown; skinny is more desirable than full-figured. When we pinch our stomachs, self-deprecate or even create social judgements based on skin color, we unknowingly feed children a narrative of norms, standards and ideals they consider to be true.
And you may wonder, how can a toy have this much power? Well, toys can teach and say a lot about reality.
During the past Christmas holiday, an intriguing YouTube video was brought to my attention. While it features two young girls opening Christmas gifts, it truly highlights that a toy is not simply a toy, but can hold powerful symbolic meanings in our society. And in this case, a rejected doll’s skin color may represent much larger and deeper issues that persist in the world.
I failed to mention that as a young girl, out of the hundreds of Barbies I owned, I could count on my hand the number of them that looked like myself. Granted, while there was no shortage of African American Barbie dolls, those who were on the market did not have the deep richness of my skin tone – and certainly did not rock kinky natural hair like me. Back then, I never questioned why my mother bought more White Barbies for me than Black, or why Barbie commercials always featured the flawless pale-skinned dolls. Barbies – White skin and thin – were accepted norms in my life, and I accepted this Barbie as the epitome of a beautiful woman. To me, she was beautiful, better and, as written earlier, anything else was completely unacceptable. This doll – this toy – had enough power to convince me of what beauty was and what it took to be the most popular, desirable girl in the world.
As trivial as it may seem, a toy such as Barbie can and has influenced the masses. And while I’ll be the first to congratulate Barbie on her effort to change, new introductions into the Barbie universe are not going to magically erase all the years of influence, self-loathing and obsession with bodily perfection to which Barbie and her tiny waist has contributed.
Mattel, and, more importantly, parents, must still take on the responsibility to teach children important life lessons. Barbie alone can not teach a child to be accepting of all people – no matter their physical appearance or orientation. Barbie alone can not teach a child that racism and sexism are still alive in the world. Barbie alone can not teach a child that women are not defined by their bodies. Barbie alone can not teach a child how to cultivate a healthy body image and be confident in your own skin. Barbie alone can not teach a child the importance of media literacy or being guarded against media’s manipulation attempts. Barbie alone can not teach a child that anything is possible when you set your mind to it.
To be clear, Barbie’s latest attempt is a step in the right direction when considering diversity and inclusion. Yes, the new Barbie fashionistas may expand children’s views of acceptable body images, but simply offering better doll role models for children won’t cut it. Kids need the guidance of adults to teach them the importance of true acceptance. And if that does not happen, skinny, blonde Barbie will always be the “pretty” one and this will forever remain a skin-deep society.