Why would this be? A few studies suggest that Barbie’s particular physical appearance—her sexualized body, her tight jeans (for Doctor Barbie), or her minidress (for Dentist Barbie)—may have something to do with the dampening of little girls’ career aspirations. There’s a plausible pathway for this: Maybe it’s because playing with sexualized and distortedly thin dolls makes girls think more about what they look like and less about their aspirations.
One study examining this connection between Barbie and body image found that after hearing a story illustrated with pictures of Barbie, young girls expressed higher levels of dissatisfaction with their bodies and a greater desire to be thin than girls who heard the same story but saw images of a full-bodied doll. Another study that looked at how much food girls ate after playing with different-sized dolls found that girls who were assigned to play with average-sized dolls ate more food than girls who were assigned to play with Barbie. Disturbingly, a study of more than a hundred girls, ages three to six, found that almost a third of them would change something about their physical appearance if it were possible, about a third reported that their ideal figure was thinner than their current size, and about half of the girls said they worried about being fat “sometimes” or “almost always.”
Americans live in a culture infused with sexualized images of women and girls. Even Halloween costumes for little girls are sexy. This is not harmless. The messages these images send—that a thinner, sexier appearance is better—get internalized and adopted by girls themselves. For example, a study of 6-to-9-year-old girls found that when asked to pick the paper doll they would like to look like, the girls overwhelmingly picked the sexualized doll over the non-sexualized one for their ideal self.
And this is where real damage is done. Studies repeatedly find that when girls engage in body-objectification (monitoring and working on one’s appearance to increase attractiveness) or self-sexualization (believing that being sexually attractive to men is an important part of their identity) there are negative outcomes. Girls who objectify their bodies more have lower self-esteem and higher rates of depression. Other research has found that self-sexualization can undermine achievement. Girls with higher levels of internalized sexualization get worse grades and lower standardized tests scores.
Which brings us back to Barbie. The ubiquitous sexualization of girls and women is not solely Barbie’s fault, of course. Barbie is but one cog in very large media- and society-fueled wheel. But Barbie is a big cog. It’s estimated that 90 percent of girls own one.
Mattel’s tag line says one thing, but its product sends a different message: Be anything you want to be. Just be sure to look beautiful and sexy doing it. Spend a lot of time thinking about what you look like and always monitor how much you eat. This may mean you accomplish less in your life. But for a girl, having other people think you are attractive is a really important goal.