OSU Adds to Childhood Play Research

barbieBarbie is a best-selling fashion doll with worldwide annual sales of about $1.5 billion. In the U.S. alone kids own about eight Barbie dolls on average with only 1% of the population not owning any. Why should you be worried about these figures? According to some psychologists, playing with Barbie could cause lower career aspirations and body dissatisfaction (the experience of negative thoughts and esteem about one’s body) which could cause negative self-perception, depression, and disordered eating.

Dr. Aurora Sherman, an Associate Professor at the School of Psychological Science in Oregon State University, and her colleague, Dr. Eileen Zurbriggen at the University of California at Santa Cruz, have recently studied the effects Barbie dolls have on young girls and their career aspirations. This study was done on 37 randomly selected girls in the Pacific Northwest from age four to seven. They were assigned to play with Doctor Barbie, Fashion Barbie, and Mrs. Potato Head. After five minutes of play, the girls were shown ten photos of occupations and were asked if they thought they could be in that career field or if it was a job for boys.

Dr. Sherman says, “We found that girls who played with Barbie in my lab felt that they had fewer career options in the future than boys, while girls who played with a more neutral toy like Mrs. Potato Head reported much less of a difference between possible careers for themselves compared to boys. We feel these findings add to the troubling aspects of play with fashion dolls, and that more research is needed to address why this difference occurred.”

Dr. Sherman is currently working on two other studies. One looks at whether the type of doll girls play with causes a difference in their self-evaluation of their own weight or in their assessment of others who vary in size and shape. The other one looks at different dolls and whether they have an effect on academic performance.

Other countries have also studied the negative effects doll play could have on young girls. In 2005, Doeschka J. Anschutz and Rutger C.M. E. Englels studied 117 girls at seven schools in the Netherlands from age six to ten. They were randomly assigned to play with Barbie, the average-sized doll Emme, or Legos for a no-doll control condition. The Emme doll is based on the full-figured American supermodel Emme which was endorsed by the American Dietetic Association in 2002 to represent a realistic dress size 16 woman rather than the dress size 2 woman that Barbie represents. The Emme doll is also taller than Barbie at 16”. The Emme doll is not mass-marketed so you can only find her as a collector’s item.

After ten minutes of playing, the girls had a taste test of chocolate covered peanuts and completed questionnaires about body image. It turns out that girls who played with the Emme doll ate more food than girls who played with Barbie and LEGO. Perhaps the girls who played with Barbie were inspired to have a slim body, and therefore, ate less. The girls were then asked what kind of body they would like to have: 15.4% wanted a taller body, 35.9% were happy with their body, and 48.7% wanted a thinner body.

Helga Dittmar, Suzanne Ive, and Emma Halliwell conducted an earlier experiment in February of 2004 in six primary schools in Southern England where they studied 162 girls from age five to eight. These girls were shown story book images. Each story was about a girl shopping for new clothes for a birthday party. One book had Barbie as the protagonist, one had Emme, and the other had a no-doll control, but neutral colors of the story’s setting. After they were read the story, the girls participated in a questionnaire where they were supposed to choose which picture represented their body, which one represented their ideal body, and which one represented what body they wanted when they grew up.

The results showed that exposure to Barbie did have a negative effect on girls’ body dissatisfaction between the ages of 5 ½ and 7 ½. This result shows that there seems to be a sensitive phase when girls use Barbie dolls as aspirational role models. It seems that at age eight girls move on from Barbie dolls to other sociocultural sources of ideal body information such as the media.

So why do girls want to copy Barbie? Playing with toys is part of the socialization process in which children internalize ideals and values; therefore, fashion dolls might serve as a role model for young girls. Playing with these dolls might provide girls with mental representations of what is expected of them later in life in terms of their social skills and body appearance.

Dr. Sherman says, however, that Barbie is not the only one to blame.

“I do not believe that exposure to Barbie is the only thing that promotes ideas about body image, but I think that it is one aspect of many ways that we give girls messages about their bodies that could, over time, accumulate into concerns about thinness,” Sherman says. 

Since the media is known for setting social and cultural norms regarding appearance, magazines, advertising, television, comic books, video games, and peer groups also carry the blame; for example, beauty is often associated with goodness while ugliness is associated with badness in many types of children’s television shows and movies. Media also shows that obese children have fewer friends, are lazier, and less happy than other children.

There has not yet been a study of the long term effects of playing with a thin doll, but psychologists hope to study this soon. There has also not been a study of young boys and exposure to action hero dolls. Since the male action dolls have continually grown unrealistically muscular, does this affect the way boys view body image and appearance related behaviors?

“It’s safe to say that it’s difficult to find any doll on the mass market that does not have unattainable body proportions—and that includes action figures for boys!” Sherman says.

Dittmar, Ive, and Halliwell suggest that in order to prevent the internalization of ultrathin ideals, there need to be programs that make girls aware that the thin beauty ideal is not only unhealthy, but unattainable; the chances of someone having a body shape like Barbie is less than 1 in 100,000 women. We need to encourage a more realistic body ideal and emphasize nonappearance-related sources of self-esteem…and, you know, not let our kids play with unrealistic dolls.

By Jennifer Smith