Barbie is finally acknowledging that women come in all shapes and sizes… she is just a little late to the party.
“Barbie reflects the world girls see around them. Her ability to evolve and grow with the times, while staying true to her spirit, is central to why Barbie is the number one fashion doll in the world,” said Evelyn Mazzocco, senior vice president and global general manager of Barbie, in a press release earlier this year.
That might be true when it comes to her fashion choices and hairstyles, but when it comes to keeping up with social trends, Barbie tends to arrive fashionably late to the party.
In January this year, Barbie’s creators, Mattel, released the Fashionistas Line, which (like another iconic American brand Levi’s) includes a curvy, tall, and petite range of dolls to reflect the changing body shape of women today.
Using Twitter as a marketing platform, Mattel announced the release of the new dolls using the hashtag “#thedollevolves”, letting its target audience, including celebrities, push the product as the new must-have material symbol.
Barbie’s new body caused an avalanche of support on social media, with celebrities such as Queen Latifah taking to Twitter to praise the brand’s decision.
— Queen Latifah (@IAMQUEENLATIFAH) January 29, 2016
Finally, after many years sitting on the back bench, Barbie is firmly back in the spotlight.
For the more cynical among us, though, Mattel’s timing to release new Barbies might be seen less as a decision to promote positive body image, and more of a commercial one.
Beauty brand Dove first launched its Campaign for Real Beauty in 2004, in response to a global report that found only 2 per cent of women would describe themselves as beautiful, suggesting the definition of beauty had become limiting and unattainable. If Mattel were really intent on creating social change, they were about 12 years too late.
Fortune magazine, commenting on Mattel’s annual reports, noted that Barbie sales were down for the “third consecutive year” in 2015, and that by 2014 its sales had slumped by 16 per cent. It would make sense then, as a business, Mattel had no other choice but to release a new product to bolster sales or risk poor returns for stakeholders.
Barbie’s new sizes are further evidence that Mattel’s intention was more about money, and less about body image. The original Barbie doll is scale to of a 175cm woman, weighing 49kg with a BMI of 16.24. The fact sheet, Get Real Barbie, created by the South Shore Eating Disorders Collaborative (SSEDC), said those measurements fit the criteria for anorexia. It said a real woman of those proportions would not be physically capable of standing upright; instead she would have to crawl around on all fours.
Despite the changes, the new doll still does not reflect the proportions of an average woman. Curvy? Hardly. A BBC report revealed that the real life Curvy Barbie would fit into a size 8, which is three sizes smaller than the average woman. Maybe she is healthy in comparison to the previous Barbie who can’t stand up, but calling a size 8 curvy is not a cause for celebration.
It’s not just the size that’s a problem. While Barbie claims to have diversified in an attempt to make the dolls relatable to more children, the brand continues to be driven by commercial realities. In 2014, a father from Ohio, Warren Johnson, tried to buy his daughter a Barbie from the Target website, only to discover that the black Barbie is more than double the price of the white one. Johnson, whose story was told on WTOL 11 News, said that after calling several stores he was told this was because the white Barbie was more popular.
The company is preparing to release 30 more dolls, each more crowd-pleasingly diverse than the last. However, the brand has warned that due to the differing sizes of the Barbies, the clothing and accessories cannot be shared, so be prepared to splash some cash: more evidence that Mattel’s decisions might have more to do with commercial reality than social responsibility. – Holly Cormack
Top screengrab of new Barbies from the Official Barbie YouTube Channel.