Ruth Handler, Mattel's co-founder, once said, "Little girls want to be big girls", while explaining why Barbie appealed to little girls. While little girls may pester parents, it is parents who actually buy them. There are after all households in the USA where Barbie hasn't been bought, and the appeal of Barbie in other cultures is limited.
So the question is - more popular with whom?
The little girls? Their parents? Other cultures?
If little girls want to be big girls, and they are already pestering parents to buy Barbie dolls, clearly the doll's awkward body proportions and dull personality have not been impediments to its popularity. At least in the USA. The effect of these new Barbies may be neutral on the doll's popularity with little girls.
Adults - parents and non parents alike - have been upset about her body, her hair, her status with Ken, her whiteness, her lack of ambition (!) etc. But let's focus on the body and its deleterious effect on young girls' body image. Academic research at the Universities of Florida and Sussex found girls as young as 4-5 years afraid of getting "fat". Since a little American girl owns 7-10 Barbie dolls, could this be a major contributor? It could, especially since human-sizing Barbie would end up in a 39-18-33 figure, a shoe size of 3, and a BMI under 17 (severely underweight). However girls gather signals from many sources not just dolls. In Shefaly Yogendra's answer to How can women be more comfortable with their bodies?
I wrote about a 3yo girl who came back from school saying her thighs were fat, something her lean and tall mum never says and was appalled by. The girl didn't own a Barbie then. There are a lot of media and social influences that shape a girl's body image. Barbie is but one element there. But as something of an emollient to parental concern, these new Barbies could be seen by parents as something they could exhale while buying and welcome without gritting their teeth.
The question remains however -- what is to stop a curvy girl fretting over a petite or tall Barbie, covetting it, and letting her idea of body image be warped by it? Yes, precisely nothing.
As for other cultures, the key lesson from Barbie's failure in China is that while in the USA she is a person, in China she was just a doll. The marketing narrative was just not culture appropriate and Mattel expanded into owned store too quickly, before the brand had established itself, thereby miscalculating the entire spiel badly. Equally in other markets, Barbie may or may not mean anything. What will Mattel do? Offer petite Barbie in Asian markets where women are petite? Or tall Barbie in, I don't know, South Sudan, where girls are very tall (and don't have money to buy Barbie)? The effect of these new body shapes on the popularity of Barbie in other cultures is hard to predict, seeing as it depends on a whole host of other factors beyond the body shape.
So in sum: on little girls, the effect is likely meh; on parents, the effect may be a small sigh of relief; on other cultures, the effect is hard to predict.
Shefaly Yogendra, PhD, is a portfolio board director, with special focus on digital and tech leadership and governance, organizational growth, risk, and decision making. She is committed to helping the new generations develop a scientific temper, critical thinking, and compassion as essential skills, through her teaching, speaking, and writing.
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