Kids fell in love with Barbie as soon as the doll hit the toy market in 1959, and she’s had a wild ride ever since. As the doll’s popularity skyrocketed, eventually becoming the most popular toy in America, so did criticism about her body. By the mid-1960s, feminist groups were decrying the doll’s disproportionate measurements and calling her a bad body-image influence for the young girls who idolized her.
After decades of defending the doll, making halfhearted attempts at introducing other dolls with more realistic body types and pointing to all of Barbie’s better qualities (she was a surgeon in 1973 when only 9 percent of all doctors were female, for example), Mattel has finally done it: The company has addressed Barbie’s impossible body shape.
This week Mattel announced new shapes and skin colors for Barbie, resulting in a myriad of varieties for girls to take home. The buzz seems to be universally positive. TIME magazine has featured the news on its cover. Millennial moms are lifting their ban on the doll, finally able to reconcile their own positive memories of Barbie with their maturely informed understanding of positive body image for their young daughters. Toy stores everywhere are negotiating more space in the Barbie aisle to accommodate not just the new dolls but all the new clothes that they’ll require as well. Hasbro, which has recently threatened to dethrone Barbie over $500 million in sales of Elsa dolls from the movie Frozen, watches with bated breath to see how the market will respond. I think it’s safe to say that Barbie’s new body is a big deal.
The introduction of these evolved Barbies is a touchstone for the future of girls’ toys, representing the power that parents possess by voting with their dollars and the cultural shift toward embracing a range of female figures. As much as Mattel might want us to believe that Barbie’s new body is rooted solely in concerns for girls’ body image, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that preceding years have seen a steep decline in sales for the doll, and Mattel has had to subsequently rethink the brand.
While some might point a finger at Mattel for this, calling it reactionary or pandering, I see it as the company’s nod to parents who have grown increasingly uncomfortable buying Barbie for their daughters. I see it as a win for a grassroots movement of parents who have said, with their spending if not with their voices, “Women come in all shapes and sizes—and so should dolls.”
The move is a risk for Mattel, as Barbie’s appearance is at the core of her brand. It’s a risk worth taking, though. It’s a risk that opens the door for a new generation of imaginative girls to explore the life of an astronaut, the career of a surgeon, the thrill of driving a convertible, or the relaxation of riding a horse. Barbie has always had an impressive résumé, and now she’s showing girls that maybe that has always been the most important thing after all. As Barbie continues to tackle new careers and new adventures, now she shows us that those accomplishments are available regardless of the shape of her figure. We couldn’t agree more.
Image Credit: Mattel