Research Article: Barbie’s new look: Exploring cognitive body representation among female children and adolescents

Date Published: June 25, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Amy Nesbitt, Catherine M. Sabiston, Melissa deJonge, Shauna Solomon-Krakus, Timothy N. Welsh, Cosimo Urgesi.


The original Barbie doll’s unrealistic body shape can negatively affect young girls’ body image. Mattel produced new Barbie dolls with “tall”, “curvy”, and “petite” body types, yet how girls perceive and evaluate the three new Barbie body types remains unknown. This study investigated whether young girls engage in an automatic “self-other matching” process when viewing the different Barbie doll representations. Female children and adolescents (N = 38; Mage = 10; 6–14 years old; SD = 2.24 years) completed a body-part compatibility task to provide an index of how they implicitly relate cognitive representations of their own body to the different doll images. Significant (p < .05) body-part compatibility effects emerged for the original, curvy and petite dolls, but not for the tall Barbie. These findings indicate that girls engage in a self-other body matching process when viewing Barbie, but that the strength of this matching is influenced by the doll’s body type. Results provide new evidence on the underlying cognitive mechanisms that occur when girls are exposed to physique-salient toys, and may have implications for young girls’ body image development and use of appearance-based social comparisons.

Partial Text

Playtime is a critical aspect of childhood development [1] because learning occurs by modelling the behaviors and internalizing the ideals and values of other people who are engaging in social interactions [2,3]. For generations of young girls, the Barbie doll has been a popular toy of choice. These dolls, however, have been critiqued for promoting unhealthy thinness and appearance-based ideals [4]. That is, Barbie is thought to represent the longstanding idealized female figure of beauty, and her body proportions have been identified as both unrealistic and unhealthy in the popular press and empirical papers [5,6]. Though not all authors agree on Barbie’s negative impact [7,8], Barbie dolls have been criticized for providing young girls with a tangible physique-salient representation of unrealistic female body shapes. In fact, there are well-documented negative body image effects related to exposure to Barbie, including reduced body esteem and body satisfaction, higher body size discrepancy, thin-ideal internalization and desire for thinness, and restrictive eating behavior [9–12]. These results are troubling because reduced body esteem and an increased drive for thinness are indicators of body dissatisfaction. Body dissatisfaction can in turn act as a precursor to mental health outcomes such as clinical depression and eating disorders [13–15].

The present novel study explored how young girls respond to the four representations of different Barbie dolls (original, tall, curvy and petite), and particularly the extent to which each body type was implicitly processed. In this way, we were able to highlight the automatic self-other matching and social comparative processes that occur when young girls view the new Barbie dolls. There were several novel findings arising from this work.




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