Jeneé Osterheldt

Barbie gets real with new body shapes, but it’s just a start in teaching diversity, inclusion

A look at some of the new Barbie options: tall, petite and curvy bodies with a mix of skin tones and hair and eye colors.
A look at some of the new Barbie options: tall, petite and curvy bodies with a mix of skin tones and hair and eye colors.

Kim Kardashian broke the Internet with her butt. Barbie is breaking it with her body. Hashtag: #TheDollEvolves.

Women shouldn’t be so defined by their physical attributes, but for the first time in a long time, Mattel’s plastic princess is being celebrated for the right reasons.

This year, Barbie is going to get a little more real. Now she’s available in petite, curvy and tall models as part of the Fashionistas line ($10-$20). Don’t worry, Barbie purists. The OG silhouette (if she were human she’d be about 6 feet tall with an 18-inch waist, big breasts and tiny hips) is still a mainstay.

Mattel's iconic plastic doll, whose small waist and long legs have been criticized for creating unrealistic expectations for girls, will be sold with three new bodies — curvy, tall and petite. Barbie will also be more diverse, coming in seven skin

This isn’t a move to replace Barbie. It’s not even an answer to Lammily, the so-called Normal Barbie. It’s a step to make the doll more inclusive. For little girls, Barbie and princesses and dolls are not just playthings; they are friends, role models and symbols of beauty.

As a child, Laura Eickman longed to have that gap Barbie sports between those long skinny legs. By fourth grade, she was dieting. Her teen years were spent idolizing celebrity pictures and battling eating disorders. Now the Overland Park clinical psychologist is known as the founder of Rebel, a peer education program designed to address body image issues.

According to research by the NYU Child Study Center, 59 percent of girls in grades 5 through 12 are unhappy with their bodies. Body shame heightens the risk of depression and eating disorders. Eickman says Mattel’s changes to Barbie’s body will have an effect.

“I think it’s important that children and adults see others who look similar to them — whether in their toys, their books, or the media,” she says. “Recognizing and appreciating body diversity in body shape, size, skin tone, eye color and hair style is an important component in improving one’s own body image. It also helps us to be more accepting of others as well. Because we all look different, it’s a definite improvement that there are Barbies who now look different, too.”

As a kid, I wasn’t bothered by Barbie’s waistline. I pretended she was He-Man’s girlfriend. I loved my blond-haired, blue-eyed Barbie. She was stunning and fun to play with. I had the beautiful cocoa Barbie, too. But I didn’t look like either of them. Because no one was celebrating my brand of beauty, I didn’t feel pretty.

And then I met Hawaiian Barbie. I’ll never forget the day my mama brought home the doll she thought could pass for biracial. That connectivity made a difference.

This was before American Girl and Bratz diversified the doll life. Over the years, Barbie has tried. But the girls of color are usually her sidekicks, limited-edition releases or really hard to find. Mattel is trying to change that by introducing seven skin tones, 22 eye colors and 24 hairstyles.

Erin Brown, the Lawrence mom and the activist behind iamerinbrown.com, says it’s important girls can pick dolls that actually reflect their owners.

“The dolls don’t represent all girls, girls with different abilities or gender identification diversity or even every body type … but this is a huge step in the right direction,” she says. “It’s important a girl can pick out a doll she identifies with and feel good about herself, but it’s also important she play with dolls that look nothing like her. These dolls are available now. Kids should play with toys that reflect the diverse representation of the world we live in. This creates normalcy of diversity and allows them to experience it in a fun way.”

If we incorporated more of a mix in the kind of toys kids played with and celebrated, we wouldn’t have viral videos of little white girls crying when they get black dolls for Christmas while the grown-ups laugh. It’s a testament to the historic doll test conducted by sociologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark in the 1940s. A majority of the children preferred the white doll and assigned positive characteristics to it.

Anderson Cooper re-created the test just over five years ago and the results were sadly the same. Kids found the white dolls to be pretty and good. The black dolls were viewed as ugly and bad.

It’s obviously symptomatic of society’s whitewashed standards of beauty. So it makes one wonder how kids will respond to the curvier dolls in a country obsessed with calorie counting.

Stevanne Auerbach, aka Dr. Toy, said Barbie’s changes are a response to reality and an awakening to the issues kids face. As the author of “Dr. Toy’s Smart Play Smart Toys,” she studies toys and play patterns. But she wants to see more from Mattel.

“What will Barbie do to support self-esteem beyond the design of the doll and its modifications?” she asks.

Barbie doesn’t just push dolls. With cartoons, games, ever-changing careers and a billion-dollar brand, Barbie pushes ideals. Will Mattel take the Dove route and create inclusive messaging?

We can’t just hand children the dolls as a Band-Aid to remedy body-shaming and racism. We want them to have diversity in the play room; we have to teach them acceptance in the real world. That’s not something we can rest on the shoulders of a plastic princess, package and sell.

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