For a skinny doll, Barbie sure carries a lot of emotional weight.
The buxom toy fashionista beloved by generations of children has long been accused of fostering unrealistic ideals of beauty—even planting the seeds of eating disorders.
But her recent makeover—which includes hips!—could mean a solid esteem-building boost for young girls, says the division chief of adolescent medicine at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.
“I really think it’s so positive,” said Lisa Lowery, MD. “I think it’s really teaching acceptance of the skin you’re in.”
Mattel on Thursday, Jan. 28, introduced the new Barbie, which comes in three shapes—tall, petite and curvy—and in seven skin tones and a variety of hair colors and styles.
“There’s even one with blue hair!” Dr. Lowery said, as she scrolled through pictures in the new line-up.
As an African-American girl growing up in Grand Rapids in the 1970s, Dr. Lowery played with a Barbie—but also with dolls of color. Her grandmother, a doll collector, made sure of it.
“She said, ‘I want you to have black dolls.’”
At the time, Lowery didn’t quite understand why that mattered. To her, Barbie was just another character, like Miss Piggy or Kermit the Frog.
But now, as a physician working with young girls, she sees the way media images—from dolls to super models to air-brushed ads—take a toll on a girl’s self-image when she looks in the mirror.
She asks teens to tell her three good things about themselves, and often they struggle to come up with one.
“It’s very hard for them to find positive things about themselves,” she said. “That’s why I like things that build self-esteem, that are self-affirming.”
In her 57-year history, Barbie has often taken a hit for creating an impossible standard. One critic calculated that the doll, as a full-grown woman, would have a 39-inch bust, an 18-inch waist, 33-inch hips and a size 3 shoe. And she would have a BMI of 16, which would put her in the underweight category.
Add in her long, blond hair and fair complexion, and you have a woman who does not exist in real life, short of surgery or other enhancements.
And yet that is the image of “pretty” that girls often internalize.
“Most of us don’t grow up to be blond and blue-eyed,” Dr. Lowery said.
And Dr. Lowery has long been a fan of the American Girl dolls, which reflected a diverse population from the outset.
It’s important, she said, for girls to realize they can be pretty, whether they are tall, short, thin or curvy. The Barbie with dyed blue hair only reinforces that message of acceptance of a wide range of looks.
Dr. Lowery predicted the new Barbies will be a hit.
“I think they will sell,” she said. “Some of them are really cool. Some look like pop stars. But more importantly, they are very diverse, not just in ethnicity, but hair style, body shape and clothing.”
And she hopes they will have an effect on the girls who embrace them, helping them realize: “I’m pretty no matter what skin I’m in.”