Playing with Barbies was a significant part of my childhood growing up in the 80s. Barbie was ruler of her kingdom (Steven existed in it on her terms). Of my friends I had the biggest collection with a couple dozen dolls. Every Christmas and birthday I was adding to the wonderful world of Barbie with everything from the drop top pink Corvette to the magical motorhome. The way I accessorized the dolls in skirts paired with high heels was an art. Occasionally I’d take the scissors to chop the long straight hair into an angled bob. In my Barbie universe everyone had to be fly.
Although the original waifish, blonde hair blue-eyed Barbie reigned supreme on toy store shelves, I only had black Barbies. This was very important to my mother, so important that if a store didn’t have any black Barbies she would drive to another that did. She never explained why—and I never asked—but as an adult I understand that she knew it was crucial for me, a black girl coming of age in the 90s, to own dolls that looked like me. I am thankful she was proactive in making sure I saw myself reflected in the dolls I played with. Because whether people want to admit it or not, toys do shape how children view themselves.
Yesterday Mattel announced its revolutionary three new body shapes for Barbie: curvy, petite and tall. The idea behind the additions to Barbie’s image is to represent womanhood in a way that is relevant to today. The body shape of the original Barbie has always been unrealistic, but in the age of the Internet and social media it was impossible for Mattel to ignore the calls for inclusion and diversity.
Barbie’s makeover was a long time coming. I personally never paid too much attention to the diversity conversation around Barbie because of my own experience of owning only black Barbies. But I understood its importance. Last year when Mattel released the Ava DuVernay collectible Barbie, it sold out within hours, proving there is a demand not only for Barbies of color, but also smart and career-oriented Barbies of color. The Zendaya Barbie—rocking locs—although not sold to the public, sparked massive interest online, again showing the demand for inclusivity in dolls.
How the new body shapes materialized wasn’t wholly a moral good deed on Mattel’s part. Sales had dropped by 20%, according to Time. In 2014, Lego surpassed Mattel as the biggest toy company in the world. In the same year, the Elsa doll from Frozen snatched Barbie’s crown as the most popular girl’s toy. Evelyn Mazzocco, head of the Barbie brand, had to do something fast. Mazzocco tells Time she asked her team to create Barbie as if there were no rules. This is how Project Dawn was birthed. A line of Barbies with various skin tones and hair textures rolled out last year. Redefining what femininity looks like in terms of body shape was the obvious next step. Who would’ve thought Barbie with a protruding belly, rounder butt and bigger feet would exist in our lifetime?
It has been argued that Barbie has no real effect on girls’ body image; but some studies have found girls exposed to Barbie were more likely to be concerned with being thin. Whether or not you agree with the influence of Barbie on girls’ body image, hopefully we can all agree that the body of girls and women have been unfairly scrutinized since the beginning of time. Beauty in media has long been synonymous with thin, white, and long hair (have you seen a Victoria's Secret show?). Only in recent years have naturally curvy celebs like J. Lo and Beyoncé been celebrated. Barbies that represent those body types, and the body types of everyday girls and the women in their family, can only be a good thing. But not everybody agrees.
Curious about what people had to say about Mattel’s history-making moment I mosied down to the comment section of the Time cover story. People are very, very angry about Barbie now looking a bit more realistic.
“It’s called fat, not curvy,” wrote one commenter.
“Fat pig barbie. You know 100 years ago obesity was VERY rare. Now its [sic] VERY common. The answer is not to make fat pig models. The answer is to modify behavior,” wrote another.
Another added, “I don't think it's the toy, it's the PC agenda that's being played out through the doll that's p*sses people off. It's just so stupid and unrealistic to keep pushing Fat Barbie. Others have tried to create Fat Barbie type dolls and they just don't go anywhere because… LITTLE GIRLS DON'T LIKE THEM. Even with extensive PC brainwashing.”
Of the 150 or so comments the majority read insanely similar to the ones quoted above. And that’s exactly why Barbie needs to evolve. There are people who have a problem with women who aren’t skinny. They are essentially enraged about making a doll that’s more representative of women’s real shapes. Imagine how that line of thinking plays out in real life—and is trickled down to children.
Barbie has never been exempt from criticism. Since the doll's inception in 1959, people have argued Barbie was not empowering to girls—despite Barbie being “a businesswoman in 1963, an astronaut in 1965 and a surgeon in 1973 when 9% of all doctors were women.” As Mattel president and COO Richard Dickson notes to Time, “Barbie had careers at a time when women were restricted to being just housewives.” Now, in 2016, there’s Game Developer Barbie, who dons stylish headphones at her standing desk. In this vlog, Barbie talks about the great doctor and astronaut, Dr. Mae Jemison, telling girls they can choose more than one profession. There’s a special place for anyone who doesn’t see how impactful this can be on young girls.
Ninety-two percent of American girls age 3-12 have owned a Barbie. NINETY-TWO PERCENT. Now perhaps those girls will grow up thinking that short is normal, that chubby is normal, that tall with big feet is normal, that curly hair that grows up instead of down is normal. That it’s cool to be a smart girl into tech. And that’s a big goddamn deal.
I wonder: If my black Barbies had had fros, would I have protested against my mom perming my hair at such a young age? If my Barbies had flat chests, maybe I wouldn’t have spent my life wanting breast implants. Or what if there was an author Barbie similar to game developer Barbie? Perhaps I would’ve known early on I wanted to be a writer. It may or may not have mattered. The point is: Girls will not have to wonder or imagine those what ifs because now it’s a reality.
Bené Viera is a journalist who writes about pop culture, race and gender. When she's not writing magazine cover stories she's somewhere in Brooklyn rapping the lyrics to "Ether."