Negative Body Image Barbie – Is She Really Responsible?

negative body image barbie - is she really responsible

Negative Body Image Barbie – I’d Like to See That πŸ™‚

Often when conversations about negative body image come up, someone raises the idea that Barbie starts it all – imagine the pretty pink package: Negative Body Image Barbie. Hilarious!

But seriously, I’ve been uneasy about Barbie for as long as I can remember, even when playing with the plastic princess with my friend Michelle when I was a kid. My brothers usually mangled any toys they came into contact with, and my Barbie was no exception – the rare doll I had as a girl was usually shorn or headless. Good thing I preferred playing cowboys or climbing trees πŸ™‚

However, Michelle was an only child at that stage, and had a truly impressive collection of Barbies, with dozens of outfits, shoes, bags… you get the picture. I was so jealous πŸ™‚

I was a skinny kid, really skinny: Michelle’s family called me Bones. Boney knees and boney elbows, that was me. I wasn’t round or shaped like Barbie, and nor were any of the women I knew; not even Michelle’s mum who seemed quite glamourous to me with her long hair, long skirts and filmy lingerie.

I realise now of course that I was about ten years old when Michelle and I “played Barbies”, and though I was jealous of her Barbie collection I was quite entrenched in the idea that I was ugly and that’s just the way it was. So any negative body image Barbie effects didn’t really take hold on me.

And Then There Were Three….

I limited my own daughters’ access to the Barbieverse because I was concerned about sexual stereotyping and negative body image Barbie seemed to really feed that.

My eldest daughter’s first Barbie was a gift from a schoolfriend, I think her mother thought she was somehow deprived because she had no Barbies!

Barbie never had so many adventures as she did in my girls’ playroom, where she drove trucks and played at a toy toolbench, was painted all kinds of colours, rode toy dogs and spent hours in the sandpit with all the other toys. Rarely was she dressed and preened.

Is a co-incidence that my eldest daughter’s body image is robust and unshakeable?

She knows she looks and feels great even though her weight fluctuates. She eats what she wants to, when she wants to, and I’m not sure she even knows how much she weighs, she pays more attention to how her clothes fit. To my relief, at age 24 she’s finally paying attention to the quality of her food as well πŸ™‚

Research into “Negative Body Image Barbie”

negative body image barbie - is she really responsible

Barbie 1958 and 2008

Is Emme, the realistic fashion doll a real alternative to negative body image barbie?

Emme, the realistic fashion doll

To answer the question about young girls and Barbie’s impact on their body image, researchers at two British Universities studied young girls who viewed images of Barbie and Emme, a more-realistic shaped doll than Barbie.

Before you read on, let me say that I truly don’t think that the makers of Barbie ever set out to create generations of girls who have negative body image, and yes I do know there is no such creation as Negative Body Image Barbie.

And yes I know negative body image is way more complex than one little plastic doll.

But just like the makers of thalidomide didn’t set out to create a thousands of babies whose bodies did not completely form, when they became aware of the unintended side-effect they had to change direction.

What these researchers found is worth considering, and it’s time we really started paying attention to these issues, not just lip service.

The researchers, from Sussex and the University of the West of England, looked at the effects of images of the two dolls on almost 200 primary school-age girls aged five to eight.

After looking at the images, the girls were asked to pick figures that represented

  • their actual body shape
  • the body shape they ideally desired and
  • their ideal body shape as an adult woman.

The researchers then analysed the difference between the shape the girls thought they had, and the shape they desired. The five and six year old girls were more dissatisfied with their own shape and wanted more extreme thinness after viewing the Barbie images than after viewing the other images. The six and seven years olds had an even stronger response, The Times reports.

But Girls Know Barbie is Not Real….?

Mattel, Barbie’s manufacturer, insists that girls know the doll is not realistic, etc.

But I’m not so sure that’s true.

Think about yourself as a six or seven year old child. Have you ever tried to remember anything that happened to you in early childhood? I have a few memories of specific notable people or events, but not really very many memories.

From my counselling practice I know that most people have the same experience.

The reason for that, I believe, is that until we’re about seven years old the part of our mind that we call the subconscious is wide open and taking in everything going on around us. The subconscious mind has no filters, no evaluation processes, no cogitive challenge mechanisms, it simply absorbs and stores information exactly as presented.

By the time we complete the first seven year cycle of life, our conscious mind is starting to take over.

That’s why our subconscious beliefs and values run our lives as adults – at least until we dig them out, make them conscious, and make different decisions.

So, imagine the four year old cutely playing with Barbie.

She might spend hours with that dolly, sleeping with it, taking it to family events; little fingers struggling with the little clothes, mixing blouses and skirts and trousers and jackets in weird colour and style combinations; handling every part of Barbie’s thin thighs, huge breasts, long blonde hair and tiny waist. She’ll spend way more time talking to, imagining and dreaming with that dolly than she will with her own mother, probably.

And during all those hours she’ll be taking in the size and shape and proportions of that distorted female body. It’s all happening while her own conscious mind is not able to filter and sort and make decisions about the unrealistic reality of the doll she loves.

Imagine what she makes that mean.

And doesn’t even know that her own physical template she will grow into is so different from the one that may be so firmly ingrained in her subconscious mind.

Does Negative Body Image Barbie’s influence even matter?

  • Five year old girls and boys, in Australia, in 2009, are being admitted to hospital for voluntarily restricting their eating because they think they’re too fat.
  • One in ten adolescent girls are putting their fingers down their throats and vomiting up their food in those years when they most need nutrients to develop healthy bodies and minds, causing life-long health problems – because they have negative body image. Some experts say the number is even higher, that bulimia is the most undiagnosed health condition in society. The condition continues for decades, sufferers don’t just “grow out of it” as adults.
  • Over half of all new cases of anorexia begin with a moderate diet
  • 25% of people who have anorexia will die. It is the mental health condition with the highest death rate. Overwhelmingly, the victims are amongst our smartest young women.
  • Up to 96% of women are unhappy with how they look, and are funding the multiple-hundreds-of-billions of dollars industries that both feed the negative images and sell the “solutions” that don’t work anyway!

And there are hundreds and hundreds of similar statistics, from every country on the planet, all affecting girls and women and slowly starting to affect boys.

Is it all Barbie’s fault?

Clearly the answer is “no”.

Look around at the world; images of unrealistically thin women, often semi-naked and almost always airbrushed into plastic perfection, are used now more than ever to sell everything from cars to houses to computer software. Our kids see tens of thousands of these advertisements every year, more in one month than their grandparents saw in their entire lives. Actresses in popular TV shows and movies are also unrealistically and very often unhealthily obsessively thin, and they also feature on magazine covers.

There’s no escaping it: our culture thinks anorexically, and at the same time we condemn the young people who are “so vain” as to want to be thin.

Yes there is some balance coming into the debate, but it’s slow and frankly it’s not making a difference yet.

Girls and women around the world are still DYING, by the thousands, from eating disorders.

Those who are not life-threateningly affected are surely suffering anyway from negative body image, and limiting the activities in their lives because they don’t look perfect.

This is not liberation for women.

Our lives are as surely shackled by this wretched dollar-driven body image industry as women in less-politically free countries are limited by extreme religious laws.

What can you do about it?

I always subscribe to Ghandi’s call to “be the change you want to see in the world”, so begin with yourself:

numbers-purple-1 Stop buying the magazines that dissect every part of women’s appearance and crow about their imperfections – and then sell you hundreds of pricey so-called solutions. There are great alternatives on the newsagent shelves that will feed your mind and your own sense of value as a human and a woman, and take your focus off the plastic princess celebrity culture.


Start watching your thinking. When you notice you’re comparing yourself to other women, examine what you’re saying and decide if that’s what you really want to believe.

numbers-purple-3 Stop criticizing your body’s “imperfections”. It’s called fat talk or body snarking and it hurt you, it hurts other women, it hurts us all. And you deserve better, honest you do.

numbers-purple-4 Start appreciating what your body actually can do, achieve, help you experience. That body you’re in is helping you read this page right now, carrying all the negative energy of your thoughts, and still doing the thousands of little tasks it must do, to keep your soul/life force/whatever you believe, connected to life on this planet in this time.

numbers-purple-5 Most of all, start allowing yourself to feel exactly what you’re feeling, right now. It’s okay. You’re okay. It’s not your fault that you feel the way you do, and you can take small steps to change it, because the feelings you’re having are YOUR feelings, the thoughts you’re having are YOUR thoughts, and the great news is, you can do whatever you want to with them, including changing them to ones that work for who you want to be.

If you’re still not sure that Negative Body Image Barbie is real, go have a look at what a real live woman would look like if she was shaped like Barbie. Then look around at the world and think about what you see….

Go for it. What have you got to lose?

This page is part of the Negative Body Image Primer – read more.


  1. britt1 on October 3, 2010 at 4:09 pm

    Who really looks like Barbie. Men don`t have the same body type ideal.

    • Sandy on October 5, 2010 at 4:21 am

      Have you seen the pics of some women who have had dozens of cosmetic procedures to make their bodies more Barbie like? Human Barbies they are…. And you’re right, though I wonder if women were are obsessed with mens’ bodies are men are with womens’ bodies, if we’d see more Official Body for men too?

      • Britt on October 24, 2010 at 10:37 pm

        Well if we had it for men who would the model be? I`m not too sure this is all the fault of men. Some women want to look a certain way to improve dating prospects. In some ways some of my girlfriends practice a type of survival of the fittest . In clubs will show off skin or act a certain way to attract a guy. Some other women have same idea and sometimes that can lead to cattiness. I think they are a little more tolerant for different shapes , height and body weight, but they seem to be trying to get guys with potential. If a guy has some good training or has really good job my girlfriends will quite often look over body and personality flaws.

  2. keren on September 13, 2012 at 10:27 am

    i am 18 and i have played with barbies my whole childhood and i have never tried to starve myself and i might have not liked my belly once or twice but i do like my body and i feel confidant in my skin, i am also against plastic surgery and lypo and such things.
    you mentioned that your daughter is fine with her body after playing with barbie (even if it wasnt so often). i have a friend that has never had barbies and she is the one that hates her body, she has been on the brink of anorexia since she was 14, this past year she has had help and is improving but i wanted to ask you if you truly think that barbie is cause (even partly) for the low body image in our world.
    i realy dont think we need to blame barbie, she was introduced in 1959 and has given little girls the chance to be something other than “mommies”during playtime (before barbie there were only baby dolls) they could finaly imagine a life, a carrier. barbie helped change the world from the sexist and degrading life style that had women in the kitchens and nurseries. barbie might not be realisticaly built but i dont think that she makes girls like their body less.
    i thing the main person to blame is mom. my mom always made me belive that my body is perfect, she is the reason that im confident in my body and it doesnt matter how many barbies i played with. my friend that i mentioned doesnt have a good relationship with her mother, in my opinion that is the reason she was strugling with ehr body image for so long.

    • Sandy on September 17, 2012 at 7:14 am

      Hi Karen,

      I take your point – Barbie didn’t affect you, but your friend’s relationship with her mother caused her to have a negative opinion about her body. So high five for you being able to take the positives from her many careers over the years. And yes, I truly do think that Barbie is part of the issue, as the researchers’ findings also suggested.

      Because Barbie is the perfect fantasy woman really – tall, blonde, thin with truly huge breasts, clearly has independent wealth πŸ™‚ and manages to do it all on her tiptoes.

      I get also that the key word here is ‘fantasy’. But a little girl lives in a fantasy world of imaginary friends, fairies, animals that talk, and a doll who is the image of a ‘perfect’ woman.

      As our little girl grows the imaginary friends, the fairies and the talking animals fall away, but the fantasy woman is still everywhere – on billboards, on TV, in the shopping mall, and probably even women in her circle blonding their hair, surgically altering their breasts, and walking through the world on tip toes.

      Obviously this is a huge complex topic that extends to our consumer-driven culture, moves to the perceived and actual value of women as humans, diverts into the role of media and the digitally altered images they present as real to sell their advertisers’ products; and extends into what health really is (it’s not hair-bleaching chemicals, toxin-laden cosmetics and back-breaking stiletto shoes). And then we’d need to have a discussion about real natural beauty and what self esteem really means – and so on. I wish there was an easy yes/no answer but it’s a really complex issue.

      The only answer to these complex issues is always education, so any and every person can make an informed conscious choice about what they believe and who they are, as opposed to pressuring governments to legislate against this, that and the next thing. Because we humans always find loopholes in my experience – observe the spirit but distort the letter of the law.

      As for my own daughter’s experience with Barbie, the doll was very rarely dressed and paraded, so she never had that Barbie-as-FEMALE-object experience, it wasjust another toy. Quite different to how most girls play with her, possibly?

      Anyhoo I know I’m rambling. Let me say that I’m impressed that you’re out on the interwebs looking for answers, gives me hope for the next gen! Rock on chicklet πŸ™‚

  3. Sue on January 27, 2013 at 8:37 am

    Barbie is as powerful or powerless as we make them.
    Collector of Barbie dolls and a grandmother

    • Sandy on February 1, 2013 at 5:30 am

      Sue, I agree. The point is though that children don’t know they can make that choice.

  4. Tasha on August 19, 2013 at 2:31 pm

    I was a thin child who adored Barbie dolls. I vividly recall the day I looked down at my legs sticking out from my little skirt, and thought, “I’m fat.” All I knew was that Barbie’s legs were far leaner than mine proportionally, and therefore, I must be fat in comparison. I was seven. Yes, Barbie dolls absolutely were the first and most powerful external input that gave me a warped body image. I did love them so, nonetheless!

    • Sandy on August 31, 2013 at 6:43 am

      Tasha, thanks for sharing that – we never know what’s going to influence us hey? It’s only as adults that we start to see….

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