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The Barbie Effect: How a doll has shaped young girls' ambitions

. 4 min read . Written by Gauri Ratnam
The Barbie Effect: How a doll has shaped young girls' ambitions

In 1959, Ruth Handler, a U.S-based designer, launched the Barbie Doll, inspired by the Lilli Doll in Germany. Since then, Barbie dolls have occupied a significant part of every girl’s childhood and have even undergone transformations that little girls vie for. 

I remember, as a girl of 18 years who had long undergone the Barbie frenzy, seeing the hair colour-changing Barbie and extensive kitchen set ups for Barbie dolls in Hamleys had me as excited as any 8 year old. 

But as much as Barbie dolls have helped form happy memories for girls all around the world, the effect they’ve had in our developing psyche can’t be ignored. Enter, the Barbie effect, which tackles how these dolls have affected body image and ambition over the years. The Barbie doll is just one example of this cliche, but the distinction between ‘male’ and ‘female’ toys continues across the board.

Toys, the adult world, and ambition

A toy, while just an object that children play with, is quite symbolic in nature. In Armenian culture, a baby’s first tooth ceremony (Agra Hadig) first explores this symbolism. The baby is made to sit on the floor surrounded by toys that correspond to a certain profession, like a gavel symbolising a lawyer, a toy tractor symbolising a farmer, and a paintbrush symbolising an artist. The first toy that the baby crawls towards and picks up is considered to be the career they’ll choose. 

Birthday parties are a hotbox of cliches as well, with girls getting a variety of dolls and boys receiving an assortment of guns and trucks. Even books aren’t spared from this generalisation. Take girls, for example, who receive books that fuel their imagination, like fairy tales. Whereas boys are usually made to read books filled with realism, exposing them to the outside world. And thus, are born the dreamers and the realists.

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Most Barbie doll sets come in what are best categorised as pink-collar professions. They’re seen as the homemaker, nurse, hairdresser, and the likes. And as girls grow up playing with them, it ingrains into them a liking for similar professions. For example, many choose to be nurses over doctors, flight attendants over pilots, and take up more artsy roles. 

A study conducted by psychology professors was one of the first to reveal the effect of playing with sexualised dolls on a girl’s career aspirations. The characteristics of the dolls made these girls choose careers with fewer possibilities for men, and vice versa. In fact, the dolls’ features, rather than accessories, was a deciding factor in these choices; another result of the Barbie Effect.

Another learning in the study was that girls who played with Barbies believed in certain distinctions between jobs that men and women could take. For example, women could take up careers like librarians, teachers, and nurses, while men were pilots, doctors, and policemen. What’s interesting is they believed that all these professions were universal to men, while women were put into the ‘pink collar’ profession box. This could be why there’s no term for male-dominated professions.

barbie effect

The ‘perfect’ body

As girls grow older, the Barbie ingrains into their minds what the ‘perfect’ woman looks like: light skin, light-coloured eyes, an hourglass figure, and long hair. Phrases like ‘nice and slim’, ‘pretty and petite’ make words like ‘nice’ and ‘pretty’ only exclusive to a certain body type. Moreover, having the same Barbie take on roles such as that of a librarian, air hostess, model, or waitress makes women associate these careers with a certain standard of beauty.

Down the line, women who don’t fit this ideal body type feel they cannot take on certain careers or try their hardest to meet these unrealistic beauty standards, which leads to eating disorders and plastic surgery. With stick-like limbs, full breasts, and an hourglass figure, the Barbie doll became a touchstone for all workout routines and diets. The question is, how realistic is this ‘Barbie look’?

Time for a change?

​​Over the years, loads of flak and many developments later, Barbie dolls now come in more inclusive variants, right from darker skin tones, fuller figures, and gender-neutral clothing. Some limited edition Barbie dolls also include other professions such as doctors, lawyers, and famous personalities in other male-dominated professions. Recently, on a trip to Hamleys (which even at 26 years I cannot walk past without stepping in for that wave of nostalgia), I noticed how the slightest bit of awareness can bring about change, with these newer variants proudly displayed on shelves.

The biggest step to change is in helping girls see themselves differently in society. So, handing them a fire truck with a doll or a book on insects with a dreamy fairytale fuels their imagination while also being exposed to the world around them. It introduces them to a world where gender isn’t a box, and neither should their dreams be in one.

It has taken almost half a century for the Barbie doll to become a more inclusive, career woman, and hopefully in time, a little awareness and change will ingrain in little girls that they can achieve anything they set their mind to. 

The development in getting rid of the Barbie Effect is slow but steady, but meanwhile, I’ll still walk into Hamley’s to eye a few that I never got to call my own.

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