By Eleni Mann
It is common knowledge that excess exposure to unrealistic body standards on social media has led to an epidemic of body image issues in teenagers and young adults in recent years. However, earlier origins of such problems are easily neglected in the current discourse surrounding body image, eating disorders, and mental health.
More than half of preadolescents, many of whom have not yet had open access to social media, experience body dissatisfaction. Unfortunately, this often leads to the development of depressive symptoms and disordered eating later in life.
So, what is causing these body image issues so early on in children’s development?
Like many children, I enjoyed playing with dolls throughout my younger years, my favourites being Bratz Dolls, and, of course, the ever-popular Barbie. Looking at these dolls from an older, less impressionable perspective, it is clear that Barbie’s proportions are unrealistic. However, I was surprised to find out just how unrealistic they are.
With a projected body mass index of 16.2, the standard Barbie is 2.3kg/m2 below the level of a healthy weight UK woman, and 0.2kg/m2 away from being severely underweight. Shockingly, research by the University Central Hospital in Helsinki showed that if she was real, Barbie would be unable to menstruate due to her lack of body fat, and the South Shore Eating Disorders Collaborative (SSEDC) calculated that Barbie’s proportions would be so unbalanced, with a 36-39” bust and an 18” waist, she would need to walk on all fours.
This means that, since Barbie’s release in 1959, generations of children have been exposed to overemphasised beauty standards that are physiologically impossible.
Earlier this year, DU researchers ran a study into the effect of dolls on body image, focussing on how young girls aged 5 to 9-years-old responded to ultra-thin dolls versus child-like dolls. Not surprisingly, after five minutes of playing with ultra-thin dolls, such as Barbie and Monster High, the ideal body type became thinner.
Alarmingly, playing with realistic dolls after playing with the ultra-thin dolls couldn’t undo this effect.
Children are extremely impressionable, and middle childhood is an important stage of cognitive and social development, especially in developing your own identity. It follows that considering the amount of time children spend playing with toys, the type of toy will have a substantial, lasting impact on a child’s perceptions of themselves and others.
It is also unsurprising that eating disorders are much more common in women than in men, as often, these ultra-thin dolls target young girls with stereotypically gendered ‘feminine’ marketing.
Given the increasing awareness of body-related mental health issues in recent years, more people than ever are now aware that the body image some toy brands portray is outdated and unrealistic – we’ve moved on from 1965, where Mattel sold Barbie dolls with miniature weighing scales set at 110lbs, and toy weight-loss books simply stating “Don’t eat.”. Barbie sales had been decreasing until the pandemic hit, and there is a much wider choice of more body realistic, child-like dolls on the market today compared to 10 years ago, such as the Lottie dolls used in the aforementioned study, based on the average measurement of a 9-year-old girl. Even Mattel have released a ‘curvy Barbie’ – although this doll is still only a UK size 8 – alongside more ethnically diverse versions of the dolls.
With this move towards increased diverse representation within the doll industry, we’re moving in the right direction towards a more body-positive society. For us adults, unfortunately, the damage may have already been done. We can only hope that, as ultra-thin dolls are continued to be phased out, dolls in the future will encourage children to be more accepting of how they themselves, and others, look.
Image: Kevin Dooley via Creative Commons