New research finds young girls are more content with their own bodies after playing with such figures.
By Tom Jacobs
The Tracy doll. (Photo: laurala2008/Flickr)
Back in January, when Mattel announced a new line of Barbie dolls reflecting a variety of body types, Pacific Standard’s Francie Diep wrote that it’s unclear if playing with the popular dolls harms young girls’ self-image. Research, she noted, is “surprisingly scarce” and sometimes contradictory.
No longer. A new study reports girls judge their own bodies more harshly after playing the traditional small-wasted, big-busted Barbie compared to a similar, full-figured doll.
The results also suggest the positive impact of playing with the more realistic doll is greater than the negative effect of playing with Barbie.
“Girls who play with thin dolls experience a desire for thinner body shapes,” writes a research team led by Kathleen Keller of Pennsylvania State University. “Girls who played with full-figured dolls selected ideal body shapes more closely aligned with their actual shapes.”
In the September issue of the journal Body Image, Keller and her colleagues Rebecca Jellinek and Taryn Myers describe two studies featuring six- to eight-year-old girls on Long Island.
If you want your daughter to feel comfortable with her own shape and size, a full-figured doll appears to be a better choice.
In the first, the 112 participants were first presented with silhouettes of seven young girls’ figures ranging from very thin to extremely overweight. They were asked to pick which one most closely resembled their own body, and which one they wished they resembled.
They then played for three minutes with either a traditional Barbie doll or a Tracy doll (modeled after the character from the musical Hairspray).
Afterwards, they repeated the above exercise, and completed a Body Esteem Scale, in which they responded to a series of 20 statements including “I wish I was thinner” and “I like what I see when I look in the mirror.”
The results: “Girls who played with Barbie had lower body self-esteem than girls who played with the fuller figure Tracy dolls,” the researchers report.
Comparing the two silhouette tests, they found playing with Tracy “decreased body dissatisfaction,” while playing with the Barbie dolls tended to increase it. “However,” they add, “these effects were driven by the more dramatic decreases in body size discrepancy for girls who played with the fuller-figure Tracy dolls.”
A second study that featured unfamiliar thin and full-figured dolls produced similar results: “Girls’ level of body dissatisfaction was influenced by the shape and size of the doll they played with, but the effects of playing with full-figured dolls were stronger than the effects of playing with thin dolls.”
So traditional Barbie appears to have something of a negative impact on body image, but playing with Tracy, or another full-figured doll has a larger positive effect, narrowing the difference between girls’ images of their actual and ideal bodies.
It will be interesting to perform such studies using the new full-figured Barbie, to see if it produces the same results. In any event, the results suggest parents and pediatricians alike should “engage young girls in discussions about healthy body image and healthy role models.” And moms and dad should keep this information in mind as they walk the aisle of Toys “R” Us.
Buying a traditional Barbie like the one you played with as a child may bring a nostalgic smile to your face. But if you want your daughter to feel comfortable with her own shape and size, a full-figured doll appears to be a better choice.