The other night at dinner I was chatting with a friend about toys that kids play with and the interests they spark. This was ahead of Mattel’s big new reveal— a new generation of Barbie that comes in more than one size. Three new bodies to be exact: petite, tall, and curvy, and they hit the shelves of barbie.com yesterday, January 28th, marking the first time in her history that she's had to change her clothes.
According to a TIME article, this decision is a “massive risk for Mattel.” Barbie has long come in one size and one color (an adjustment they made last year in an effort to combat diversity issues), and that size and color does $1 billion in sales annually. Sold in 150 countries, a Barbie is purchased every three seconds.
Rewind back to the other night. Dude’s point was fairly simple— that playing with G.I. Joes and other similarly camouflaged men encouraged him to look behind the uniform. He said that the toys got him interested in history, made him ask his grandpa about the war, and ignited a lifelong passion and curiosity in current events. What, he wondered, did toys for girls DO for girls?
Aside from some rather obvious flaws in his argument— Barbie, for one, has always claimed to be a champion for women, developing astronaut and doctor Barbie in the ‘60s and ‘70s when women were more likely to be typing and answering phones rather than stitching up a patient— he wasn’t entirely wrong. Barbie’s interests, varied as Mattel has tried to make them, still always come back to her Dream Home, Dream Wedding, Babe Ken and that G’night Kiss, and her Body.
IT’S A CAPITAL B, BODY.
It’s a little wild when you think about it. We’ve been talking about Barbie’s body since Ruth Handler created her in the ‘50s.
"My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be. Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices," Handler has said. But despite the fact that she has run for President six times, Barbie’s body has remained the same for over half a century. It’s a change that was bound to come, if not a little late. (No one has ever let the co. live down Slumber Party Barbie, who came with a book entitled “How to Lose Weight” with a one page instruction: Don’t eat.)
On their end Mattel has always claimed, despite studies that prove the opposite, that Barbie has zero influence on young girls’ body image. Which, considering 92% of American girls ages 3-12 have owned a Barbie, is a pre—tty preposterous statement. Lots of stats have come out over the years detailing that IRL Barbie’s BMI would fit the bill for anorexia, that she likely wouldn’t get her period, that her bizarre proportions and size 3 foot would cause her to walk on all fours, and so on.
More so, in regards to the new versions of Barb, Mattel will not divulge the doll proportions or how they were decided on.
But at this point, they are damned if they do, damned if they don’t. That’s what happens when just about every single kid plays with your toys and you’ve got the minivan majority out for blood.
In focus groups some moms wanted Barbie curvier. Others worried that gifting a plumper Barbie could actually create a different set of insecurities. Would the gifted assume that she was “curvy” or “average.” (Some moms were all, where the F is Dad Bod Ken? JK. That’s our idea.)
Part of the problem is these mom aren’t wrong. This Barbie isn’t reframing the conversation about women’s bodies, but rather adding the zeitgeist that women’s bodies are topic for conversation. Which, circles back to the question of what DOES Barbie spark in young women? Does she inspire young girls to dream big? Make her think about running for Pres one day? It’s possible and yet, this is never what we talk about when it comes to the blonde doll with the perky boobs.
And even though Mattel introduced three new body styles, the majority of the media focus is on the "thicker" one.
BUT THIS NEEDED TO HAPPEN.
Time and sales will tell if it’s too late for Barbie to shift its image. Inclusivity is great, if it actually prompts inclusivity. There is the risk that no young girl is going to want “Curvy” Barbie. The body conversation is moving in the right direction, but if the doll doesn’t do well, will the toymaker pull the plug? And then what? What message does that send young girls?
That’s part of the reason it is a huge, holy smokes kind of risk for the company. And that's part of the reason it also needed to happen. Without risk, there is no reward. There will ALWAYS be Barbie haters; it comes with the territory. Richard Dickson, President and COO of Mattel actually said, “Haters are gonna hate.” But this isn’t a T.Swift anthem. This is a doll that is deeply embedded in the American psyche and has the power to change how young girls view themselves and their friends. Let’s hope she sells, that way we can finally stop talking about her body. That would be boss.