When selecting children’s toys, balance is critically important. All kids should have a true diversity of toys to play with—dolls, construction toys, play food, craft supplies, vehicles, and so on—to encourage a richly imaginative play life.
Fashion dolls, however, have long been the sticking point in this plan. Fashion dolls can be really fun, but the most common fashion doll—Barbie—has become so riddled with problems that it’s a poor choice for little girls, even when balanced out by other toys. And I don’t just mean the body image issues everyone has heard about: many other problems pervade the brand, too.
Fortunately, many fun, healthy new fashion dolls have debuted in recent years. Thanks to these new offerings, there’s no longer a good reason to buy Barbies for little girls.
Here are five good reasons to avoid Barbie altogether:
1. Barbie’s beauty ideal is unhealthy and damaging.
Let’s begin with the reason everyone’s heard about. The best-known reason to avoid Barbie is crucial: The doll has an unrealistic body type and a rigid beauty ideal that studies show can be harmful to girls. As body image expert Marci Warhaft-Nadler, author of The Body Image Survival Guide for Parents, explains: “Barbie sends our girls one message, and it’s this: ‘You can do anything and you can be anything—as long as you look like this: very tall, very thin, very Caucasian, and very beautiful.'”
The scholarly research documents Barbie’s negative consequences on girls’ psyches. For example, a Developmental Psychology study reported that “girls aged five to six were more dissatisfied with their shape and wanted more extreme thinness after seeing Barbie doll images than after seeing other pictures”—and that among girls ages 6 and 7, “the negative effects were even stronger.” Another well-designed experimental study found that girls who played with Barbies were more likely to restrict their eating afterwards than girls who played with the fuller-figured (now discontinued) Emme dolls.
Studies like these influenced the creation of new fashion dolls designed with girls’ body images in mind: the Lottie dolls and the Lammily doll. According to Lottie’s creator Lucie Follett, she was inspired to create Lottie when she read a newspaper article about the Developmental Psychology study on girls’ body dissatisfaction after playing with Barbie. “This provided the inkling of an idea,” Follett explains. “We then went on to contact the researcher, Dr. Margaret Ashwell, OBE—formerly head of the British Nutrition Foundation—and her colleague Professor McCarthy. They helped us ensure that Lottie has a childlike, age appropriate body that is based on the scientific dimensions of a 9 year old girl.”
Educational psychologist Lori Day, author of Her Next Chapter: How Mother-Daughter Book Clubs Can Help Girls Navigate Malicious Media, Risky Relationships, Girl Gossip, and So Much More, urges parents to choose healthy fashion dolls. “There are so many better choices for girls than Barbie,” Day argues. “So many fashion dolls, products, and media constitute a tidal wave of unrealistic body types and needlessly sexualized imagery, which collectively do send a harmful message to girls.
“In contrast,” Day notes, “Lottie Dolls, Lammily, and others present girls with a much healthier and diverse image of the female face and form. If there are better choices out there—and there are—why not choose them?”
2. Barbie products portray girls as unintelligent.
In 1992, Mattel’s “Teen Talk Barbie” infamously chirped, “Math class is tough!” Mattel recalled this sexist toy reluctantly, after the American Association of University Women brought widespread awareness to the issue.
You’d think Mattel would have learned its lesson from this gaffe, but apparently not. Just this year, Mattel had to recall its disastrous I Can Be a Computer Engineer! book featuring Barbie as a computer science student. Given our current widespread cultural attention to the importance of preparing girls for STEM careers, the topic sounds like a great choice—but I Can Be a Computer Engineer! portrayed Barbie as incompetent and constantly in need her male classmates’ help.
“‘I’m only creating the design ideas,’ Barbie says, laughing. ‘I’ll need Steven’s and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game.’ ”
Not cool, Mattel. Not cool.
3. Barbie has a race problem.
Mattel struggles to present Barbies of color in ways that surpass tokenism—in ways that are equal to the brand’s presentation of the iconic, Caucasian, blonde Barbie. Mattel’s advertisements and the dolls’ arrangement in toy stores (which Mattel cannot control, but does influence) both have a problem with this.
Unlike Bratz dolls, which competed with Barbie so successfully in part because of the dolls’ racial diversity, kids know that there is only one “real” Barbie—and that Barbie is blonde and white.
Even very young children notice this inequality, with heartbreaking results. For example, one mom writes:
Several weeks ago my daughter Boogie (who just turned 5) had a Barbie doll eaten by one of our dogs. Normally this would lead to a meltdown of epic proportions. This time, however, she shrugged nonchalantly and said, “She’s just the Black one.” Keeping my voice calm (while internally freaking out) I asked her if that made the Barbie less important. She said yes. YES. What? Black children, especially girls, need to be told that they are important. It isn’t something they just assume. The racial bias is simply out in the ether.
Boogie is African American/Caucasian with very light skin and bright red hair. She has hazel eyes. Her little brother Bear is African American. He is very dark. So I then asked if she thought Bear was less important than a white boy. She said yes again.
She couldn’t remember why she thought that or where she heard it. I was completely heartbroken.
Boogie’s mom is right to be concerned about her daughter’s perception that her black Barbie was less important than her white ones, as well as Boogie’s extension of this logic to her own baby brother. According to critic Ann DuCille, author of Skin Trade, dolls help children figure out who they are in relation to the surrounding world, and when multicultural Barbies are basically merely “dye-dipped” white Barbies—dolls “modified only by a dash of color and a change of costume” in inauthentic and unfair ways—the consequences for children are serious.
For black children, “Dreaming white is the natural response to what the child sees and does not see in society’s looking glass,” DuCille writes. Meanwhile, for white parents striving to raise anti-racist children, racial hierarchies in the toy aisle can hinder their efforts.
The young African-American girls I interviewed for my book Growing Up With Girl Power: Girlhood On Screen and in Everyday Life could readily see these inequities in the Barbie brand, as well. For example, Rhea, age 9, lamented that Mattel doesn’t treat the Barbies of color fairly. “For the black Barbie dolls, they give ‘em, like, orange [outfits] and everything before the white, and [for the white] one, they give her, like, pink and blue or something,” she observed. “A lot of black people hate orange!”
Madison (age 9) agreed with Rhea’s assessment. She told me how these politics informed her shopping choices: “I buy Bratz dolls because all of them—all the Bratz dolls are treated right.” After all, all Bratz dolls wore equally trendy fashions, and all of them shared the stage in MGA’s advertisements—whereas groups of Barbies are usually presented in a hierarchical fashion in Mattel’s ads, with white Barbie at the front, top, or center.
In addition to these problems, children also deduce that black Barbies are less important and less valuable than white Barbies when they see their disparate pricing in stores. Retailers have a pattern of pricing black Barbies lower than or higher than their equivalent white Barbies, with negative implications either way. (This is beyond Mattel’s direct control, but it indubitably exacerbates existing problems with the Barbie brand’s handling of race.) Retailers admit that these otherwise comparable dolls really should be priced identically—but all too often, they’re not. Sadly, disparate pricing of any kind sends a subtle message of inequality to shoppers perusing the toy aisle and should quite simply be against corporate policies.
For fashion dolls representing girls of color, check out the beautiful dark-skinned Branksea Festival Lottie and Kawaii Karate Lottie, as well as Butterfly Protector Lottie, who’s got medium skin, dark hair, and dark eyes. In the plush doll category, consider Go! Go! Sports Girls’ Basketball Taye and Soccer Anna. And in the Disney Princess lineup, the Toddler Tiana dolls are a favorite. (As I explain in The Princess Problem, I really appreciate Disney’s toddler dolls’ healthy body shape).
4. Barbie dolls are not age-appropriate for young girls.
Barbie dolls were originally meant for girls 9 to 12 years old. At the time of Barbie’s debut in the late 1950s, the doll was controversial because it presented such young girls with a sexy female form, and many parents objected. But the exciting new concept of the “teenager” (created by marketers of that era, akin to the invention of the “tween” category by marketers in more recent years) appealed to pre-teens, who enjoyed having a mature, aspirational doll to play with. Compared with the baby dolls that had previously dominated the girls’ doll market, Barbie and her career-oriented activities presented a whole new world.
With every new generation of children, however, the toy industry has increasingly felt the squeeze of age compression. Marketers have pursued revenue growth by targeting ever-younger children with their products, but in consequence, items embraced by little kids have fallen out of favor with the older children who originally enjoyed them. After all, no self-respecting child wants to play with a “baby” toy!
Therefore, in the aftermath of the successful release of Mattel’s “My First Barbie” in 1981—a simple, inexpensive Barbie doll meant for a new audience of preschool girls—Barbie has gradually lost its 9- to 12-year-old demographic. Mattel therefore abandoned the marketing of Barbie products to girls this age. To reach and captivate “tween” girls, Mattel execs realized they would have to create a new toy line–leading to the release of the Monster High line a few years ago. (Note that Mattel’s loss of the 9- to 12-year-old audience was accelerated by the success of the Bratz brand, whose edginess and diversity made Barbie seem hopelessly dated in young girls’ eyes.)
According to a recent article in Advertising Age:
For all her purported business sense, Barbie’s sales are falling. For the most recent quarter ending in June , worldwide Barbie sales dropped 15% year over year, the third consecutive quarter of double-digit losses. Barbie’s brand sales have decreased in eight of the last 10 quarters.
Toy analyst Reyne Rice said age compression, with Barbie dolls now appealing to a smaller age range of girls, is partly to blame, along with increased competition from edgier and more contemporary dolls like Monster High (which Mattel also owns) and Disney’s “Frozen” characters.
Mattel now targets girls ages 3 to 7 with Barbie dolls—but there’s no doubt that these girls would be better served by dolls without the problems outlined above, notes educational psychologist Lori Day, author of Her Next Chapter.
“I know a lot of women my age who played with Barbie and comment that it did not hurt them, and it’s true,” Day explains. “But I have to point out that the context for playing with Barbie has changed, and context matters. When I was a child, older girls played with Barbies, not preschoolers—and those girls were not barraged with sexualized dolls and hyper-feminine products set against a backdrop of pinkwashed girlhood. Barbie was naturally balanced out by so many other options for girls that have since disappeared from the market or are now labeled ‘boy toys.’”
5. Barbie buys its way into pro-girl spaces, appropriating girl empowerment to sell more dolls.
Mattel is the 5th-ranked global licensor worldwide, with $7 billion dollars behind it—giving it a value greater than many countries’ entire GDP. With such deep pockets, Mattel has a long history of insidiously buying Barbie’s way into pro-girl spaces, in an effort to “goodwash” Barbie’s problems away by its association with credible girl empowerment brands.
Examples of this corporate practice abound in minor and major girl empowerment brands and communities alike, but the most prominent examples are Barbie’s 2010 sponsorship of Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day and Barbie’s partnership with the Girl Scouts, announced in March 2014. This new partnership involves the release of a Girl Scout-themed Barbie doll and a Barbie uniform patch for Girl Scouts to work to earn. Mattel paid the Girl Scouts a cool $2 million for this association in an effort to improve their brand image. Unfortunately, the deal damaged the Girl Scouts’ image and dinged their credibility, but given the organization’s financial problems, it’s understandable that they would make such a compromise in order to continue their service to girls.
Mattel’s affiliation with the Girl Scouts caused as much or more incredulity and controversy as the essay “Barbie” wrote when Mattel placed images of the doll in Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Edition just a month beforehand, in February 2014. In the essay, Mattel appropriated feminist ideas to justify placing Barbie in Sports Illustrated, a publication known for reducing women to sex objects…despite having claimed for years that Barbie is a career woman who is a good role model for girls.
In machinations such as these, it’s clear that Mattel is not actually promoting girls’ empowerment—just Barbie. Barbie’s empowerment discourse is a marketing strategy, nothing more. For this reason, when I see blog posts trying to convince the world of Barbie’s empowering potential, I’m suspicious of the underlying motivations.
Josh Golin, associate director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), agrees.”Mattel markets girls on the illusions of choice, telling them they can ‘be anything,’ but really, of course, the goal is to limit choices to the Barbie brand,” says Golin. “The Girl Scout sponsorship epitomizes Mattel’s attempt to make it virtually impossible for girls to make the choice to be something other than a version of Barbie. Traditionally, the Girl Scouts have represented everything Barbie is not: Girl Scouts’ mission is to build ‘girls of courage, confidence, and character,’ while Barbie teaches girls to focus on appearance, outfits, and shopping.”
For this reason, Golin explains, the CCFC has spoken out against the Mattel-Girl Scout alliance. “Coopting what had been the quintessential ‘anti-Barbie’ organization is quite a coup for Mattel,” he notes, “and a heartbreaking loss of Barbie-free space for girls.”
In conclusion, when you’re selecting gifts for the little girls in your life, don’t give Barbie a second glance. With just a little time and care, you can find a perfectly fun, appealing, and healthy fashion doll that the child will love and cherish.
Rebecca Hains, Ph.D. is a media studies professor at Salem State University and the author of The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years, a book meant to help parents raise empowered, media-literate daughters.