Since her inception 55 years ago, Barbie’s gotten a lot of flack for how her freakish proportions negatively affect girls’ body image and even lead to at least one tragic case of a woman literally trying to transform herself into the doll. Last month, Barbie’s lead designer defended the doll’s proportions in an interview with Co.Design. But new research suggests it’s not just body image that Barbie impacts negatively–it’s a girl’s career aspirations, too.
A new study called “Boys Can Be Anything: Effect of Barbie Play on Girls’ Career Cognitions” is, according to researchers Aurora Sherman of Oregon State University and Eileen Zurbriggen of the University of California, Santa Cruz, the first attempt to quantify how this freakishly proportioned doll influences girls’ ideas of their futures.
Thirty-seven girls aged four through seven were assigned to play for five minutes with one of three toys: a Doctor Barbie, a Fashion Barbie, or a Mrs. Potato Head doll, who has all the sex appeal of a, uh, potato. After playtime, the girls were shown 10 photographs of various professions and asked how many they thought they could do in the future, and how many they thought boys could do.
The girls who had played with homely Mrs. Potato Head reportedly believed they could go on to do just as many jobs as their male peers. But those who had played with Barbie, regardless of whether she was dressed as a doctor or a fashion model, saw themselves as having fewer career options than boys.
“Perhaps Barbie can ‘Be Anything’ as the advertising for this doll suggests, but girls who play with her may not apply these possibilities to themselves,” Sherman says. “Something about the type of doll, not characteristics of the participants, causes the difference in career aspirations.”
What about playing with Barbie makes girls doubt their future career possibilities? The researchers believe their study suggests that even young girls can recognize the sexualized nature of Barbie and her unrealistic body shape, and that these things can inform a girl’s understanding of gender roles. But they admit they need to look more into why this occurs.
The sample size in this study was small, the length of playtime short, and the researchers only optioned 10 careers. But if researchers could build on this initial study and solidly prove that Barbie’s influence is a negative one, maybe Mattel would at least consent to giving the poor doll enough room for a liver.