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New Barbies promote positive self-image

By Kirsten Wong / Columnist

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Girls around the world wanted to look like Barbie. Now, Barbie looks like us.

Last week, Mattel Inc. announced that Barbie’s reinvention will come out with an entirely new look — one that includes three new body types and seven different skin tones.

The iconic doll’s makeover comes after decades of criticisms about Barbie’s unrealistic proportions, hyper-feminized image and enforcement of narrow beauty standards to young girls.

While her transformation is a victory, Barbie is only one toy in a playroom of questionable models. Her controversial profile feeds into the broader issue of toys constantly being categorized and fitting into negative stereotypes about gender.

Growing up, I remember Barbie and her perpetually pink shoes and outfits sprawled across my floor next to her extravagant Dreamhouse and private jet.

We would bring Barbie outside, play with her in our rooms for hours, show her off to our parents and devise endless storylines about her. Along with Bratz dolls, Polly Pockets, American Girl dolls and Easy-Bake Ovens, my memories are filled with toys that represented a specific female identity.

When I found an American Girl doll named Kirsten, I begged and pleaded to have her as my own. Looking back now, if I had a doll that looked just like me, I would have had a meltdown.

Toys matter a lot to us. But Barbie has been around since the ’60s, and, until now, she’s had a figure that is anatomically impossible. According to an experiment by Rehabs, Barbie, in real life, would be 5-foot-9 and 110 pounds — so underweight that she would not be able to menstruate.

Our country is gradually entering an era where body-positivity movements and plus-sized models are just as “in style” as the size-two models women used to idolize.

Plus-sized models are now making appearances on the runway during Fashion Week, and brands such as Victoria’s Secret have started “The Perfect Body” campaign. These movements expose adult women to body positivity,  but often, these campaigns only reach adult women, not little girls. With Barbie’s new makeover, little girls are also exposed to a body-positive movement.

Research has demonstrated the negative impact toys can have on body image — Barbie being the main culprit. In 2006, a study by the American Psychological Association showed that girls exposed to Barbie dolls reported lower self-esteem and a greater desire for a thinner body shape than the girls exposed to the Emme doll, a plus-sized doll that mimics the plus-sized model Melissa Aronson, also known as Emme.

Not only is the old Barbie — and other dolls like her — promoting a single definition of beauty, but she is also teaching girls a narrow-minded view of what it truly means to be feminine. This raises an even bigger issue when it comes to promoting the gender binary.

Studies have shown that much of the socialization of gender roles arise at a young age when toys are the center of their childhood.

According to Vanessa LoBue and Judy DeLoache’s study, by 2-years-old, girls chose pink objects more than blue, despite research showing that babies prefer blue objects, regardless of gender. At that age, children are also aware of the physical differences between boys and girls.

By 3-years-old, children can differentiate toys based on gender. And at 4-years-old, children have a sense of their gender identity and learn gender-based behavior, such as what girls do and what boys do. They pick their toys accordingly.

While it may seem like the toys children play with are harmless, gender-based toys have long perpetuated negative ideas about identity.

Toys that are meant for girls are usually associated with pink, makeup accessories, dollhouses and kitchen sets — a focus on beauty, housekeeping and caretaking that girls can internalize unwillingly. Similar to how boys’ toys are often associated with blue, cars, Legos, Nerf guns and action figures.

Much of the gender roles and behaviors children learn begin at the home — which can minimize the child’s experiences and view of the world. If a boy only picks up “masculine” toys as a toddler, what will he say when he is faced with what is deemed feminine later on in life?

Young girls confined to makeup, dress-up dolls and kitchen sets are subjected to these ideals — similar to how young boys confined to trucks and action figures are as well.

The popularity of Barbie makes her a treasured part of every girl’s childhood. For young girls who put her on a playful pedestal, she is a beloved figure they often aspire to be. Instead of being someone they can relate to or envision being themselves, she becomes a model of perfection that is out of reach.

Barbie’s new look is a positive step in the right direction, but the gender categorization and gender norms that toys mimic are still prevalent.

It is our responsibility to let children play with whatever toy they wish to play with, regardless of the gender label. Games, puzzles and educational toys all have long-term benefits without the gender label.

But when companies and stores only sell one body type or gendered toys, that poses a challenge on a parent’s few options. So, we must also recognize our power as consumers and refuse to pay into stereotypes. We must demand companies create more gender-neutral toys.

There is an increasing demand for gender-neutral toys and labels, demonstrated by Target’s recent announcement to get rid of gender-based signs.

As companies realize that parents and children want to see more of a variety and open array of toys, they are finally understanding the need for diversity, or at least, the power of the consumer. But lower sales and complaints should not be the only factors determining their business models.

As the nation’s demographic tide and attitudes shift, so should the toys that encompass the children’s world. When we limit the types of toys for children, we are also limiting their imagination and possibilities for learning.

Perhaps we should make all dolls and action figures to reflect real-life people.

Growing up, Barbie was in almost every household I went to, including my own. It is a refreshing change to see her finally look like me.

The familiar faces and body types will let girls know they are worthy of being portrayed, and that every size and shape is beautiful.

The new Barbie shows she is not just a plastic template — she is one of us.

Kirsten Wong primarily writes on social justice issues and education for The Pitt News

Write to her at kew101@pitt.edu

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New Barbies promote positive self-image