Barbie’s absurd proportions are hurting Mattel’s bottom line

No longer America’s girl.
No longer America’s girl.
Image: Reuters/Aly Song
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She’s an eternal teen, celebrating her youthful perfection with equally ageless friends on an always-sunny Malibu beach—forever wide-eyed and innocent, despite the fact that she’s on the cusp of turning 55. But there’s always been an ugly side to beautiful Barbara Millicent Roberts, better known by her mononym Barbie: Her fashionable proportions, beloved by young girls throughout the world, are unrealistic to the point of being virtually impossible for humans to attain.

It’s been estimated that fewer than 1 in 100,000 women are genetically capable of achieving a Barbie doll’s physique, which—translated into real-world scale—would make her 5’9”, about 110 lbs., with bust-waist-hips of 36-16-33. Indeed, as researchers at the University Central Hospital in Helsinki, Finland have concluded, a living Barbie would have an anorexic Body Mass index of around 16.24—and would probably lack the minimum 17% body fat required for a woman to be able to menstruate.

And yet, Barbie’s corporate parent, Mattel, has not only refused to alter Barbie’s dangerous curves (the statistics above are based on the doll’s current mold—after a 1997 redesign that altered the icon to align her look toward more contemporary “aspirational” norms), it’s actively defended them, most recently with the declaration last week by the company’s chief designer that Barbie’s body type was functionally necessary to “accommodate how the clothes will fit her.”

In an interview with FastCo Design, Barbie’s VP of Design Kim Culmone said:

“She was designed for girls to easily dress and undress. Primarily it’s for function for the little girl, for real-life fabrics to be able to be turned and sewn, and have the outfit still fall properly on her body….Because if you’re going to take a fabric that’s made for us, and turn a seam for a cuff or on the body, her body has to be able to accommodate how the clothes will fit her.”

Culmone went on to say that the company had no intention of changing the doll’s proportions: “This is a 55-year-old brand where moms are handing clothes down to their daughters, and so keeping the integrity of that is really important. Everything may not always be able to fit every doll, but it’s important to me that the majority of it does.”

What Culmone is alluding to is related to a tech-industry phenomenon known as “lock-in.” By keeping her shape as standardized as possible, Mattel guarantees that girls and their parents will buy branded clothes and accessories that conform to her, uh, uniquely heroic proportions. In turn, these legacy wardrobe and lifestyle items encourage girls to buy additional Barbies that are appropriately sized to them. The success of this ecosystem has made Barbie the single biggest contributor to the toy giant’s profits, generating $1.3 billion a year—about one out of every $5 the company makes. It’s also made Barbie ubiquitous: As science blogger Dave Munger points out, the average 3- to 10-year-old girl in the US owns eight Barbies; only 1% of girls in this age group owns none at all.

The Barbie Effect

As a result, virtually every girl in America grows up being exposed to Barbie’s unrealistic measurements, usually at a critical age for body-image development. The impact on girls’ self-perception can be dramatic: A study by University of Sussex researchers Helga Dittmar, Emma Halliwell and Suzanne Ive, published in the journal Developmental Psychology in 2006, showed that girls aged 5 1/2 to 7 1/2—the prime age for Barbie play—who were exposed to the doll subsequently had significantly greater reported body dissatisfaction, and a stronger desire for a thinner body shape when they grew up.

Concern about this “Barbie Effect” has prompted powerful reaction over the years. Artist Nickolay Lamm created a 3D-printed “normal Barbie” with the proportions of an average American woman, and placed his creation side by side with Mattel’s Barbie to underscore the surreal nature of the latter’s shape. Model Katie Halchishick posed nude for O Magazine, with a surgical outline of Barbie’s shape overlaid on her own plus-size (or more accurately, “typical size”) form, demonstrating the kind of knifework she’d have to undergo to approximate the doll’s sylphlike appearance. And anatomical illustrator Jason Freeny rendered Visible Barbie, putting a living Barbie’s cramped insides on display. (Rehabs.com separately calculated that her wasp-waisted torso would only have enough room for a half-human-sized liver and a few inches of intestine, which would certainly make it easy for her to keep her weight down.)

But all of these responses have been focused on a reality in which most of the girls playing with Barbie—flaxen-haired, azure eyed and porcelain-skinned, except in her sun-lovin’ Malibu guise—are white. That reality began to vanish a few years ago, when in 2011 the Census revealed that for the first time in American history (okay, the second), the majority of babies now being born in the United States are non-white.

And women of different ethnicities tend to have different culturally normative physiologies. The fashion industry’s size 8—which has long been used as the “standard” size for American women, even though the most common size in the US is actually 14—is equivalent to a 35-inch bust, 27-inch waist, and 37.5-inch hip. The average white women aged 36 to 45 in the US actually measures out at 41-34-43. Meanwhile, black women, on average, are 43-37-46, and Hispanic women, 42.5-36-44.

So it’s not too much of a stretch to conclude that, as the population gets more diverse, the Barbie Effect will have an increasingly pronounced impact on young girls.

All shapes and sizes

Beginning with Kenneth and Mamie Clark in 1947, researchers have documented how self-esteem issues related to overt racial differences, like skin color, hair texture and eye color, express themselves in doll play. Two-thirds of young black children in the Clarks’ seminal experiment said they preferred a blonde, white doll over a dark-haired, dark-skinned doll. The Clarks interpreted this as reflective of an embedded sense of inferiority, due to the soul-crushing effects of segregation and Jim Crow.

But as the Barbie Effect demonstrates, dolls aren’t just a symptom of self-esteem issues; they can be cause of them as well. If a busty, thin and long-legged doll—a blond, white, busty, thin and long-legged doll—is defined as aspirational, then kids who don’t conform to those standards, or whose immediate adult role models don’t, are likely to experience even deeper feelings of body dissatisfaction as a result.

Addressing this has been the life-goal of doll designer Stacey McBride-Irbey, who during her 15 years at Mattel developed the “So In Style” line of African American Barbie offshoots. McBride-Irbey calls her position at Mattel a “dream job”—one that taught her what “appeals to girls in dolls and toys, what they are thinking, and what their parents will buy.”

“But it was a Catch 22,” she says. “What made Mattel so great also created limitations. Once my purpose [of] designing dolls of color was ignited, I reached my plateau for where Mattel was going to allow me to go.”

It was then that McBride-Irbey met Trent T. Daniel, a development consultant and entrepreneur who happened to be on the same panel with her at a speaking event.

“Listening to her story, I realized that she had a much bigger vision than the line she’d created at Mattel,” says Daniel. “I realized she really had her finger on something that could be viable in the marketplace.”

Within four months, Daniel had convinced McBride-Irbey to leave Mattel and join him in launching The One World Doll Project, a venture that would bring McBride-Irbey’s multicultural doll design ideas—a line they’ve dubbed Prettie Girls—to life.

“Our primary focus has been to create dolls that are more human—more consistent with what multicultural girls are seeing every day,” says Daniel. “Before we even began to design, we had our 3D sculptor and design team go out into the malls and videotape young women going by. We took an average of those different body types, and used it to help us come up with the Prettie Girls body form now.”

As a result, says McBride-Irbey, their dolls reflect real—and healthy—images that are both physically attainable and culturally sensitive. “Girls pay more attention to details than we think,” she says, noting that when one of their testers was playing with Lena, an African American girl who’s a savvy straight-A student and aspiring entrepreneur, “she said, ‘Hey, she has a butt like me!’ Well—that was my goal!”

A changing heritage

Prettie Girls are still slender, though not quite as stick-insect slender as Barbie. But with smaller busts, thicker thighs and wider hips (and yes, posteriors designed for sitting rather than posing), they’re far more plausibly real than their Mattel counterparts.

McBride-Irbey notes that Barbie uses a few different body molds, including some that are “more realistically proportioned” than others. “But none necessarily for the physical norms of society,” she says. Especially with society changing as rapidly as it is.

Recently, Mattel’s stock has been in free fall, after reporting dismal holiday results. The single biggest cause of their plunging earnings: An unexpected collapse in Barbie sales in the US, which were down 13% from the previous year. And yet, in her interview with FastCo Design, Barbie VP of Design Kim Culmone maintained that she had a duty to not change the iconic doll’s physical proportions in any important way.

“Unless for some reason in the future, there’s a real reason to change the body—because of either a design imperative or functional imperative—heritage is important to us,” she said.

But with Hispanics, Asians and African Americans accounting for 93% of America’s population growth over the past decade and a half, and now making up a majority of children under the age of six, “heritage” doesn’t just mean preserving a psychologically damaging bodily ideal—it also means that a half-century-old toy brand is in danger of tumbling into irrelevance.