Barbie: Let’s get our sparkle on with the science of the world’s most famous doll

Photos from Greta Gerwig’s upcoming Barbie movie went viral on social media this year, unleashing a flurry of hot pink, in a phenomenon dubbed ‘Barbiecore’. 

But what about all those Barbie-linked controversies about body shape, gender stereotyping, or spying on children? Can we embrace the new trend?

Let’s get out the Barbie Lab playset and dip our tiny plastic toes into some Barbie research

Barbara Millicent Roberts – ‘Barbie’ for short – is the disco dolly that’s more than 60 years old. 

She’s shorter than a ruler and has had more than 200 different careers. But this tiny toy has been troubling researchers for decades. 

Whether it’s concerns about body shape, gender stereotyping, consumerism, or spying on children, Barbie always seems to always find herself centre-stage in toy controversies. 

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2016 Barbie Exhibition at Musee des Arts décoratifs (Paris) / Credit: Mattel, Inc.

Barbie’s unrealistic proportions 

Persistent concerns about Barbie’s body shape probably weren’t helped by one special-edition doll. Released in 1965, Slumber Party Barbie came with a set of bathroom scales, and a How to lose weight book containing unhelpful tips like “don’t eat”.

For decades, social scientists and psychologists have been investigating concerns about the doll’s body shape, and how this might affect children’s ideas about body image.

In 1996, a group of Australian researchers decided to scale Barbie and Ken to human adult size, comparing the dolls’ measurements with the physical proportions of a range of women and men. Both dolls were scaled to a reference height of 170cm.

Ken had a narrow 75cm chest and 72cm hips. The researchers found the likelihood of finding a man of comparable shape was 1 in 50.

Barbie was more problematic. 

Barbie’s chest-to-waist ratio was the most extreme, mostly due to the doll’s tiny waist which scales to 40cm in human terms (compared to the reference group measuring just under 70cm). Surprisingly, the doll’s chest size was the measurement closest to average.

The chance of a woman being the same proportions as Barbie was less than 1 in 100,000. Which is the equivalent of a single person in a packed-to-the-rafters Melbourne Cricket ground. 

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Credit: Mattel, Inc.

How does playing with Barbie affect body image?

A number of studies and experiments have sought to determine whether playing with Barbies has any flow-on effects for children’s body image or level of body dissatisfaction.

Australian and UK researchers conducted a study in which 160 primary school aged girls were randomly offered an opportunity to play with Barbie, look at the doll, or look at pictures of the doll, with some children allocated to a My Little Pony control. 

The study, published in the journal Body Image, found exposure to Barbie in any format promoted the ideal of a thin body. However, it didn’t show evidence of a connection between playing with the doll and lower body self-esteem.

A recent study by psychologists in the UK asked girls aged 5 to 9 to play with either ultra-thin dolls (like Barbie or Monster High) or more realistic options (like Lottie). The participants were then quizzed about their ideal body size. Playing with ultra-thin dolls did result in a thinner ‘ideal body size’. 

The results of other studies looking into this question have been mixed. UK and US studies found body dissatisfaction was significantly higher when children played with Barbie. Meanwhile a Dutch study found no effect. 

Over time, the company has worked to address concerns around the doll’s appearance and to better reflect diversity in the broader community. In 1971, Barbie began looking forward rather than glancing sideways. In ‘77 she smiled with her teeth showing. In 2015 she was able to wear flat shoes.

By flickr user lil wiz
In 2015, Barbie was finally able to wear flat shoes / Credit: Flickr user lil’_wiz licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

For the first time in 2016, the toy was made available in different body shapes and sizes. The most recent addition includes a range focused on disability representation and diversity inclusion.

Read more: Body image a serial problem

‘Shrink it and pink it’ – gender stereotyping in toys

Barbie has also become a curvaceous lightning rod for debates around gender-stereotyping of toys and colours, particularly her signature colour: PMS219 or ‘Barbie Pink.’

Gender-based stereotyping, or set ideas about what is considered appropriate for boys versus girls – are reflected all around us – through family and social attitudes, but also clothing, television shows, books, and of course toys. 

survey of Australian parents by advocacy group OurWatch, found the vast majority of parents believe boys and girls should be treated equally. Yet the same survey showed that while most parents were comfortable with girls engaging in masculine-typed play, they were less comfortable – and fathers in particular – when their sons played with dolls. 

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Australian parents surveyed were less comfortable with their sons playing with dolls / Credit: Mattel, Inc

To address concerns, late last year, California became the first US state to require large retailers to display toys and childcare items in gender neutral ways.

Maybe this all sounds frivolous – they’re just toys right?  Studies show that children as young as six-years-old can develop gender-based stereotypes, like the idea that girls don’t like computer science or maths. Over time, these ideas can influence interests and limit opportunities and career choices.

Read more: Women scientists like their toys, too

Despite her impressive CV, Barbie does tend to get blamed for being a negative influence on girls’ ambitions.

A 2014 study by American researchers randomly assigned a group of 37 girls aged 4 to 7 to play with one of three dolls: a fashion Barbie with high heels, a doctor Barbie with a stethoscope, or a Mrs Potato Head. 

After 10 minutes of play the girls were asked if they could do any of 110 occupations when they grew up, and whether boys could do those jobs.

Girls who played with either type of Barbie thought they had fewer career options than boys. There was a much smaller difference for the potato head group.

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Barbie robotics engineer team / Mattel, Inc.

Barbie’s Curriculum Vitae

Yet no-one can say Barbie has had her own career choices limited.

She’s been an astronaut since 1965, an astrophysicist, a chemist, a computer engineer, a game developer, a roboticist, a palaeontoloist and a zoologist (to name a few).

This year two lucky Barbie astronauts even visited the International Space Station as part of a mission to inspire interest in science, engineering and space. Incidentally, a number of other toys have made it to the ISS including tops, yoyos, marbles, kendamas and skipping ropes. 

Apparently, Barbie has also been running for president in almost every US election since 1992. Initially up against Bill Clinton and George H W Bush. However, it must be said that Barbie’s campaign mostly consisted of wearing a series of red, white and blue outfits – ballgowns, power suits and pearls, and a social media presence with inspirational hashtags like #youcanbeanything.

Read more: Telling girls they don’t like STEM halves their involvement at any age

Does Barbie spy on you? 

In 2015 Mattel released Hello Barbie – a wireless artificial-intelligence-linked toy capable of having an adaptive two-way conversation.

This was one of the first toys embedded with microphone, speaker and wifi connection, and speech recognition enabled by a belt buckle. 

This high-tech Barbie was programmed to talk about topics including fashion, school, family, holidays and animals. And it incorporated progressive learning, meaning that the doll collected previous conversations and tailored future responses to the child or user.

The doll was released with a smartphone app, that (somewhat creepily) enabled parents to listen in on the conversations between their child and Barbie.

Security researchers soon raised concerns the doll could be turned into a surveillance system for tracking and listening to young children, with hackers able to access system and account information, stored audio files and directly access the doll’s microphone.

Billions of Barbies

Still, the enumerable concerns haven’t dampened demand for the 60-plus year old toy. 

And photos from the forthcoming Barbie movie have unleashed a hyper-pink, global Barbiecore trend that has not only swept social media and the fashion world, but inspired architectural paint companies to release Barbie dream house inspired paints.

The most expensive Barbie ever has a local connection: Australian jeweller Stefano Canturi created her diamond necklace and earrings, which the doll – Stefani Canturi – wears with a little black dress and pink heels. She was sold for US$302,500 at a charity auction for breast cancer research. 

But there’s money in quantity too: during the pandemic, Barbie‘s sales rose to US$1.35 billion a year.

The population of Barbies is growing by around 100 Barbies every minute, or 58 million Barbies a year. For comparison, the global human population grew by around 65 million (and, being made from plastic, Barbies probably live a lot longer).

Not-so-fantastic plastic

It’s probably not a great idea to be playing with those vintage dolls however.

A study published in Environmental Health found toys from the 70s and 80s have hidden dangers beyond body image or gender stereotyping.

According to the researchers, up until recently, heavy metals were largely unregulated in toys and other products. The study used a handheld x-ray fluorescence spectrometer to detect heavy metals in toys including Barbies, Fisher Price Little People, and My Little Ponies.

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Vintage Barbie astronaut from 1965 / Credit: Mattel, Inc

Lead or cadmium were found in 67% of the vintage toys tested, often exceeding current US and European limits. Arsenic was detected in 16% of the toys. 

Originally Barbie was made from a type of plastic called polyvinyl chloride, by a process known as rotation moulding, where plastic is turned slowly in moulds while the vinyl hardens. 

This method made sure Barbie had all her fingers and toes.

Environmental laws in Europe caused a re-think, because when PVC burns it produces hydrochloric acid, linked to acid rain. 

Today, Barbies are made up of a concoction of different plastics. Her arms are made of ethylene-vinyl acetate (also used in thongs, and frozen food packaging), her torso is acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (also found in Lego), legs from polypropylene and PVC, and head of hard vinyl (like the kind used in vinyl records). 

Of course, the story doesn’t end there with tailor made fabrics and textiles, and miniaturised zips, snaps, and buttons.

More recently, to address environmental concerns, the company that makes Barbie introduced a line made from 90% recycled plastic and invited customers to mail-in their old dolls for recycling.

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Barbie eco-leadership team is made from recycled plastic / Credit: Mattel, Inc

From fashion dolls to Melbourne Fashion Week

Tomorrow: Sustainable fashion: seven steps to unpick unsustainable trends

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