Thompson: Diversified Barbie – Mattel Creations makes an overdue change for the better

Laurel Thompson

When I was young, I was somewhat of a tomboy. Most of my childhood was spent running around barefoot outdoors, as the summers consisted of camping and fishing trips, water gun fights, gardening, bike rides and boating days at Horsetooth reservoir. Yet somehow, I still made time for my American Girl, Polly Pocket and Barbie dolls—especially in my preschool and early elementary school years. It must be something about growing up a female in this society; no amount of dirt could bury my hope to one day look as flawless and desirable as Barbie.

Although unrealistic beauty standards reached an all-time high for both sexes in the early 2000s, Barbie’s traditional blonde, fair-skinned, disproportionate figure dates back to 1959 with the rise of Ruth and Elliot Handler’s company, Mattel Creations. The couple got their inspiration while observing their daughter’s preference for paper adult dolls over baby dolls—and so America’s first mass-produced adult doll was born.

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However good the Handlers’ intentions were, Barbie has become a popular subject for criticism regarding impractical beauty standards, white supremacy, female gender roles and heteronormativity in contemporary society. While Barbie’s clothing and hairstyles shifted easily with the trends of each decade, it wasn’t until 1980 that the first black and Hispanic Barbies were invented—and it wasn’t until just last month that Mattel gave Barbie more than one body type.

And I must say, it’s about time. Now, Barbie is available in more than 30 combinations of ethnicity, body type and clothing/hair style, making her a much more accurate representation of American women than the previous model. Barbie’s most recent additions include “curvy,” “petite” and “tall” options, as well as the new Barbie in a Hijab.

For decades, female-targeted icons like Disney princesses and Barbie dolls have perpetuated unrealistic ideas of what it means to be attractive and desirable in the eyes of men—and society in general. I can remember first acknowledging this issue as a middle-schooler in an English class, which was well after my Barbie days were over. And I wasn’t alone; for most girls, the damage has already been done by this age.

So why did it take so long for Barbie to be manufactured with different dimensions? Why was ethnic variety introduced so long before different body types? I think the answer lies within a shifting set of ideals beginning with the Millennial generation—especially among its women.

According to a survey conducted by Bentley University’s Center for Women and Business, “The Millenial generation is better educated and more diverse than any other generation in U.S. history,” and tends to exhibit values of authenticity, morality and equality over the superficial aspects of corporate America. 

Regarding body type and weight, this trend can especially be seen through pop culture contributors like Adele and plus-size models like Ashley Graham that have continuously disproven socially-constructed links between artificial beauty standards and success. Even some of America’s celebrities that fall within these beauty standards choose to advocate for healthy living and acceptance of others as opposed to false aesthetics, and some have even become angry with the media for glorifying or altering their bodies via Photoshop. With these women as the new popular role models in society, it is now much easier for girls to acknowledge their own self-worth, no matter what their ethnicity, body type or style. 

Given this shift in younger generations’ values and perceptions of beauty and success, it is only natural that our society would see a decrease in traditional icons like Barbie. Therefore, I believe the invention of “curvy Barbie” was essential to the company’s continued success among increasingly more confident generations of girls. 

Collegian Columnist Laurel Thompson can be reached at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @laurelanne1996.