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There are real women who represent beauty in all its forms. Why do we need Barbie to do it for us?

The real bravery award goes not to the Barbie brand, but to the actual women who took off their wigs and walked the runway with vitiligo.

There are real women who represent beauty in all its forms. Why do we need Barbie to do it for us?
[Photo: Mattel]

This week, Mattel unveiled a new fleet of Barbie dolls that push for even more diversity and inclusivity than we’ve seen from the brand in recent years.

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One doll has vitiligo, a condition that causes patches of skin to lose their pigment. When this doll was featured in the Barbie Style Instagram channel, which is directed at adult fans of the brand, it became the most liked post the brand had seen. Another new doll has a prosthetic limb and yet another is hairless. In a statement, Mattel said, “If a girl is experiencing hair loss for any reason, she can see herself reflected in the line.” The idea is to empower girls who are experiencing chemotherapy or alopecia or hair loss for some other reason.

The dolls come at a time when we’re continuing to wrestle with society’s narrow notions about what it means to be beautiful. Earlier this month, Massachusetts Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley made a dramatic announcement on a video for The Root, in which she announced she had been experiencing hair loss, or alopecia, since the fall. Wearing a yellow snakeskin top with a bow, she presented herself on screen for the first time completely hairless. The video went viral on social media and was picked up by outlets like CBS and NPR. Pressley points out that as an African-American political figure, her hair has always been of interest to the public, since the way she wears it is reflection of her ethnic heritage and identity. She decided to talk about her struggle with alopecia openly to be a model for other women who struggle with hairlessness. Similarly, Winnie Harlow has shattered stereotypes about beauty. The former “America’s Next Top Model” contestant, who has vitiligo, is one of today’s most in-demand fashion models.

The Barbie brand is trying to be part of a similar conversation. For decades, the brand faced criticism for the fact that the dolls were unnaturally skinny, potentially fostering body image issues among girls. Barbie appeared to believe that its lack of diversity might be a reason for declining sales because in 2015, the Barbie franchise went through a major reboot, unveiling dolls with nine different body types, 35 skin tones, and 94 hairstyles, which together, would allow the dolls to reflect a broader swath of the population. The brand has also rolled out dolls in wheelchairs and with prosthetic legs.

This diversity appears to be helping revive the Barbie brand, along with several other initiatives. Last year was the doll’s 60th birthday, and the brand pumped out countless products tied to the anniversary, including dolls honoring female role models from the past and present. Barbie has also been creating more online animated content, including new episodes of a YouTube show called “Barbie: Dreamhouse Adventures.” Thanks to all of these efforts, Barbie sales reached a five-year high last quarter, jumping 12% during the last holiday season.

But it’s unclear how much influence the diverse dolls really have. A spokesperson said that the new diverse dolls—including the ones with vitiligo, no hair, and a prosthetic limb—would be sold “widely” and would roll out throughout 2020. She added that, overall, “more than 50% of the Barbie dolls offered are diverse.” But she declined to share exactly how many of the diverse dolls the company manufactures and sells.

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When I visited my local Target recently, the Barbies in the toy aisle were largely white, skinny dolls in fashionable outfits. On the Barbie Style Instagram page, the vast majority of the images feature the original skinny blond Barbie character, with occasional appearances from black dolls. The same is true of the Barbie Instagram feed, which targets children.

As a millennial mother of a little girl, I’d love to see Mattel work harder to promote and sell its diverse dolls. I’d love for my daughter to play with dolls that reflect her physical characteristics, as a mixed race child, but I’d also love for her to play with dolls that look nothing like her. After all, the Barbie doll has played a role in shaping children’s ideas about beauty for 60 years. That has been less true in recent years, as Barbie sales have declined among millennial parents. Nonetheless, generations of impressionable girls (and boys) have grown up with Barbie, a character associated with fashion, style, and physical attractiveness.

In any case, some of the most inspiring messages about beauty these days don’t come from dolls or celebrities but rather real, powerful women like Winnie Harlow and Ayanna Pressley. “I knew that that I was going to—when I felt ready—go public (about my alopecia) because I felt like I owed all those little girls an explanation,” Pressley said in the video for The Root.

I’m glad she’s got my daughter’s back.

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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