The Barbie Effect

Instructor: Gaines Arnold
This lesson looks at the Barbie Doll, which designer Ruth Handler launched in 1959, and how the doll has affected women since then. The Barbie Effect has ties to body image issues, and career and educational attainment, according to psychologists.

What Was Ruth Thinking?

In 1959, Ruth Handler went to Germany and saw a doll called the Lilli Doll. It was a doll that possessed adult female features and was designed for men. It was actually patterned after a prostitute. Handler, however, had another idea about how similar dolls could be used. She had noticed that her daughter and other young girls were playing dolls not with the traditional baby dolls one would expect, but with paper dolls that mimicked adult women. The rest is Barbie Doll history.


Ruth returned to the United States and worked to market this new type of doll via the Mattel Corporation. She partnered with Disney and began marketing the product directly to young girls. One of the main reasons Barbie became the icon, or object of devotion, that she is today, is because Ruth Handler understood how to market effectively. Almost every girl wanted a Barbie, and their mothers bought their little girls the doll for Christmas (or birthday).

Over the years, however, people have had issues with the perfect blonde (or later, brunette) doll. People said that Barbie had an unnatural figure that caused problems with girls and their body image. Another problem was that Barbie was not a career girl. She relied on her good looks to get Ken, Barbie's handsome significant other, to 'bring home the bacon'. Finally, Barbie was pretty. She didn't have to be smart to make it in the world. Psychologists and others have been studying what has been alternately called the Barbie Effect or Barbie Syndrome for more than 50 years. But are these issues real, or have people been laying too much at Barbie's petite feet?

An Obsession with the Perfect Body

Body image (how a person sees themselves and their physical appearance) problems have been dominating news cycles for years. Magazines and other types of media have put forth an image of the perfect female body that is difficult to attain. The ideal female body is depicted with a slim waist, and is also tall and fit. This model figure is said to be unnatural because only a very few women can actually match the ideal. Some believe this problem started with Barbie.

Because their Barbies had this type of body, little girls grew up believing that they needed to match that ideal. In some cases, this has reached the level of a disorder with some young women surgically molding their bodies to look like Barbie. It has also, in a few cases, caused depression and anxiety when an individual was unable to look like Barbie.

However, this problem has also caused more attention to be brought to the issue. Mattel has even introduced a Barbie Doll in recent years that matches measurements that are much more natural. Barbie and the media that set her figure up as the ideal have started a general conversation about body image and the dangers that unrealistic ideals cause.

I Don't Have to Be Smart…Just Pretty

Barbie Dolls are also believed to be the cause of another type of angst. Researchers determined that young girls who played with Barbie were more likely to believe that they did not have the same occupational advantages as boys. While young girls tend to perform on the same level with, or better than, boys in all subjects, as they get older, teens and young women do not perform as well in math and science. Some people have found that some of this disadvantage comes from an internalized belief that women don't need to have careers in math and science. This internalized belief may emphasize that all a girl has to do to succeed is look pretty.

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