Voice of Reason: Research Debunks 'Barbie Ideal'

Once again, Barbie was one of the best-selling toys this past holiday season. Mattel's world-famous fashion doll has become a cash cow, selling nearly $2 billion of merchandise each year. Barbie has also become part of many a girl's childhood.

Just before Christmas, however, a team of British researchers announced that many young girls mutilate and torture their Barbie dolls. According to University of Bath researcher Agnes Nairn, "the girls we spoke to see Barbie torture as a legitimate play activity....The types of mutilation are varied and creative, and range from removing the hair to decapitation, burning, breaking, and even microwaving." The reason, Nairn said, was that girls saw Barbie as childish, an inanimate object instead of a treasured toy.

What's this? Aggression against the beloved Barbie, the beaming plastic icon of (allegedy) idealized beauty? Could it be that society has misinterpreted how young girls view Barbie? For decades, journalists and social critics have assumed that young girls idolize Barbie dolls, but little actual research has been done on the topic. In the absence of evidence, assumption and speculation ran rampant.

Barbie has been blamed for a variety of social ills. Time magazine columnist Amy Dickinson claimed in 2000 that "Women my age know whom to blame for our own self-loathing, eating disorders and distorted body image: Barbie." In her feminist best-seller The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf bashes Barbie, and views the doll as an imaginary "ideal" woman. Boston College sociology professor Sharlene Hesse-Biber also believes that Barbie "is the perfect figure presented to little girls as 'ideal.'" The claim is echoed in hundreds of books, Web sites, magazine articles, and television programs.

Yet recent evidence, including the University of Bath study, suggests that the "Barbie ideal" may be a myth. Just because a girl plays with a Barbie doll does not mean she idolizes it or views it as a physical role model. Critics cite statistics such as that if Barbie were real, she couldn't walk upright, or bear children.

But of course Barbie is not real, and was never intended to represent a healthy body or physical ideal. While Barbie has long been badgered about her "unhealthy" shape, no one complains that Mr. Potato Head's tubby physique is even less healthy. Girls are far more intelligent than Barbie critics give them credit for; they know their dolls are just that: dolls.

The girls in the British study are not alone. One adult woman in an informal survey reminisced, "Mostly I helped my brother decapitate Barbies and threw limbs in neighbors' yards. No one told me I should look like Barbie and I never felt like I should look like her." Said another, "I never regarded Barbie as a model for a real person. I actually hated her shape because it made it hard to put clothes on her."

The claim that Barbie can cause eating disorders also rests on shaky assumptions. Anorexia nervosa and bulimia are serious diseases that cannot be "caught" from playing with dolls. Research has shown that the disorders are strongly influenced by genetic factors, not thin dolls or media images.

It seems that not a single survey, poll, or study has shown that girls actually want to look like Barbie dolls. In the rush to criticize Barbie and thin images, the assumptions got ahead of the scientific evidence. Eating disorders and self-esteem are important issues, but have little to do with Barbie dolls. So parents can relax: the kids are alright--even if they torture Barbie now and then.

Benjamin Radford, a media critic, writes about Barbie in an upcoming issue of Playthings magazine. He is also the Managing Editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

Live Science Contributor
Benjamin Radford is the Bad Science columnist for Live Science. He covers pseudoscience, psychology, urban legends and the science behind "unexplained" or mysterious phenomenon. Ben has a master's degree in education and a bachelor's degree in psychology. He is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and has written, edited or contributed to more than 20 books, including "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries," "Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore" and “Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits,” out in fall 2017. His website is www.BenjaminRadford.com.