Barbies, Bodies, and Image: But Can I Really Be a Barbie Girl?

On Friday Mattel debuted three new body types for its Barbie line, tall, petite and curvy, the first substantial changes to the iconic fashion doll’s figure since her bust was slimmed and her waist widened several years ago.


In a long and in depth cover story at TIME, Eliana Dockterman examines the history of Barbie resistance and the impetus for adding these new doll bodies to the Barbie roster. Consumers have been complaining about Barbie’s figure since the doll debuted and Mattel has only changed things up a few times, making her “more realistic,” and adding new skin tones and hair types. The addition of Barbie sidekick/sister Skipper, though, was the only real departure from a single and slim Barbie silhouette.

So why add tall, petite and curvy Barbies now?

Mattel’s share of the doll market, it turns out, is being carved up by Disney and other competitors. After eight straight quarters of double digit losses and a corporate shakeup, it was time, I guess, to do something drastic before that marketshare dwindled to an ever smaller sliver. Of course, the line from Mattel is that they were simply responding to consumer demand and the increasingly diverse buying public. (As though fat people, short people, Asian, Latina and Black people are a new demographic trend.)

Corporate cynicism aside, there’s the question of the dolls themselves – importantly, are they cute?

Well, yes. The new doll bodies are part of the Fashionista line of Barbie dolls, aimed at a more discerning doll fashion audience. Think: less large animal vet Barbie, more shopping holiday Barbie. The clothes are beautiful, of course – Barbie is an aspirational brand as much as it is a story-telling brand, and her clothes are always lovely and (usually) well made. Barbie dresses well. That’s just how it is. And then there’s the other thing: the possibility of a Barbie that looks like me or you. The expansion of the Barbie story; still aspirational and fashion-focused, but now open to people who don’t look like Barbie Barbie.

Near the end of the TIME piece Dockterman quotes several girls and mothers she spoke to about the new dolls. Whatever their response to the new doll bodies and faces, all the girls know who the “real” Barbie is. All the mothers know what the “real” Barbie story is. Are these new dolls just an adjunct to the core Barbie brand, a too-late offering in a marketplace that’s moving beyond that brand, no matter how iconic? Even the kids have doubts. Mattel may have opened the door but can I ever really be a Barbie girl? Do I want to be?

As the WWAC staff debated the cultural significance of the move we kept getting distracted by the dolls, their clothes, and our emotions. Oh, you got us with this one Mattel.

[dropcap]1.[/dropcap] The dress, the boots, the earrings, the hair, it’s just so ladylike with an edge with the boots and earrings. I don’t know if I want Barbie to create life-size clothes as these are mostly limited to dresses which I rarely wear, but I do appreciate the range of bodies and hair in these. And I looked up closer, and they also actually changed the features so it’s not just essentially white Anglo-Saxon features, but there are different actual faces along with various skin tones. I think they have done fairly well. But that python dress on Doll 21 is aggressively ugly. –Ginnis Tonnik

[dropcap]2.[/dropcap] I like that this one has pants and you can see she’s actually like, more curvy. — Kate Tanski

Fucksake barbie. Is that a CLUTCH? — Claire Napier

[dropcap]3.[/dropcap] I want her because her make-up is on point and her top is really fashionable. I also really love her hair. — Ray Sonne

[dropcap]4.[/dropcap] I want this idealized femme version of myself though.
— Kat Overland

I want this outfit for realsies. — Laura Harcourt

[dropcap]5.[/dropcap] I cried real tears when my daughters saw the trailer for Annie and said “She looks like us!” because they don’t get to see that often. Their curly hair is a beautiful struggle to deal with, and we live in a town where there is not a lot of diversity, so it’s so important to me for them to be able to see reflections of themselves in the media so that they know that, while they are individuals and unique, they are not an anomaly. — Wendy Browne

Megan Purdy

Megan Purdy

Publisher of all this. Megan was born in Toronto. She's still there. Philosopher, space vampire, heart of a killer.

One thought on “Barbies, Bodies, and Image: But Can I Really Be a Barbie Girl?

  1. Let’s face it, Barbie has been problematic for so long, that people use the name as a slur. It inspired a song* about the fakeness of the girls like her, calling them “blonde bimbos.” Having dolls that are (finally!) outside of that mold is huge. Yes, it’s a Hail Mary pass on Mattel’s part because they lost the Disney Princesses to Hasbro and lost a tremendous amount of market share. But if desperation leads to this kind of innovation, which is good for girls in the end, I don’t care what the motivation was. They are a for-profit company, trying to get my money. This is a far better way to do it than with the “bimbo” – who has had updates to her physique to make her more “realistic” to be fair – but much damage has already been done. This goes a long way to making up for that.

    I never had a fashion doll that looked like me, and I’m a white girl. What about all those girls of color (and boys, to be completely inclusive), who just want to see themselves? We hear it a lot, “representation matters,” but it does, it does, it DOES. I hope this Project Dawn does well for Mattel, I hope it shows them that diversity is marketable, and I hope that spreads to other toy companies, so that children have more options. “It’s just a toy” is a BS throwaway line from people who know nothing about children, pop culture, and how those things affect the world we live in. We can’t forcibly reeducate them, but we can “force” them to live in a society where the change happens around them, whether they like it or not. This is one of those changes. Inclusivity. Diversity. Representation. Deal with it. (Heh.)

    *That got Aqua sued by Mattel, defending their trademark which they thought was being tarnished and probably taking offense at the use of “bimbo” in the song. Aqua’s defense was that it was a parody work, which is protected. Ultimately it was dismissed at the Supreme Court.

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