Prev Next

Should We All Lighten Up About Barbie?

By Alice Bradley

Photo by Picklepud

Recently in Babble, there was a Smackdown on the topic of Barbie: Yay or Nay? Both writers ended up on the same side, which made the Smackdown decidedly… un-smackdowny. No one was smacked down, in other words. There was no smacking. Down. Jeanne Sager and Mike Adamick both gave Barbie, in the end, a reluctant yay. Actually, more like an naaaa-okay.

Like most of us modern feminist liberal parents, Jeanne Sager never expected to buy her daughter a Barbie. And she didn’t. But then her daughter received one as a gift—and fell in love. ” I didn’t even know she knew who Barbie was,” Sager writes. But she did, and she knew it was something to covet.

So her daughter showed a moderate level of interest in Barbie, undressing her and dressing her over and over. Eventually she moved on to other toys. And in the end, what happened to her daughter? Nothing. “It’s a doll,” observes Sager. Just a doll that doesn’t have any more hold over her daughter’s psyche than her other toys. “She seems no more attuned to her own body after playing with a Barbie, no more obsessed with hair, clothes, make-up or weight.”
Mike Adamick’s daughter also received a Barbie for Christmas, much to his consternation. He worried that Barbie was a less than exemplary role model for a girl’s evolving notion of herself. He knew of a young girl who wanted to diet, to be more like her Barbie. “Some young girls see Barbie, want her body and then destroy their own. After all, isn’t Barbie a model for the perfect female?”

But then he, too, found that Barbie didn’t have much of an impact on his kid. Eventually, he realized there’s a lot more that influences a girl (or a boy) than just a single toy. “It dawned on me,” observed Adamick, “that I, her father, probably have a lot more sway over how she will one day view herself and her body than some stupid doll.” So it turned out that Barbie wasn’t the evil soul-killing machine out to destroy their daughters’ fragile self-identities—she was just a doll. A doll with exceedingly weird proportions, sure. But at least she wasn’t a Bratz. Those are insane.

I’m interested to hear what you guys think about Barbies. I don’t have a daughter, but I was a girl—a girl besotted with the world of Barbie. I had the Barbie Dream Boat and the Barbie Airplane and the Barbie Corvette. I had an entire tiny Barbie wardrobe filled with numerous Barbie outfits. I can still remember picking out those tiny get-ups in the toy store, with their eensy shoes. I just salivated a little. Over tiny plastic shoes.

I don’t ever remember feeling that I had to look like Barbie. I didn’t gaze into Barbie’s face and dream of someday being that beautiful. Barbie didn’t really do it for me, looks-wise. I was more into the Barbie accoutrements than the doll itself. First of all, she had feet that left her permanently on tippy-toe, the better to fit her high heels onto. Her hair was way too big for my tastes. And she didn’t even have nipples. Barbie was a blank slate, waiting to be clothed and sent off on an adventure. Barbie often interacted with the Hulk and the Green Lantern or visited my doll house, where she walked amongst all the stubby doll house figures like some benign, mute super model. Barbie was part of a much larger imaginary world, for me.

I have plenty of friends who were forbidden Barbie, and if you were to look at us all together, I don’t think you would pick out the Barbie owner among us. I don’t wear heels. I am unlikely to dress as a flight attendant. My hair is not bleached blonde. I have never suffered an eating disorder. I don’t think Barbie inflicted any lasting damage.
But Barbie today is different from the Barbie I grew up with. I couldn’t help but notice, on a recent visit to Target, that the Barbie wardrobe had taken a definite turn for the, well, trashy. I might feel less comfortable purchasing a Barbie for my daughter if it meant that she would parade around my house in fishnet stockings, a yellow mini, and a silver tube top. I don’t know what the current Barbie accessories are, so if they’ve moved away from vehicles and toward, say, princess castles, I would be less than happy. This is where I defer to the current parents of daughters. What’s your stance on Barbie? What have your experiences been? Is Barbie dangerous, or benign?


Published January 16, 2009. Last updated June 28, 2018.
Alice Bradley
About the Author

Alice Bradley

Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.


Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.

icon icon
chat bubble icon


  • Laurellee

    January 16, 2009 at 11:37 am

    My 3 year old has 3 Barbies and a ken doll–and this feminist women’s studies major mama bought all of them for her. I loved Barbies when I was little, and I love playing Barbies with my daughter. We have so much fun, and I know that I have much more influence than any of her dolls, Barbie or otherwise.
    One Barbie has pink hair with a black stripe, one is the typical blonde, one is hispanic looking, and her Ken is black with a slight fro. Behold, the unity of the Barbie world!
    But f*ck no, there will be no Bratz in my house.

  • Kirstie

    January 16, 2009 at 11:48 am

    Barbie causes eating disorders .. really?
    I never was one for Barbie as a kid. I had a few, but I never took any interest, according to my mom – I was instead obsessed with my Fischer-Price dollhouse, and if you recall, all the dolls in that were rather stocky. Probably not too body-image damaging, right?
    I still ended up struggling with an eating disorder .. it’s not the dolls your daughter plays with. It’s the attitudes of the people around her that will have the most influence.

  • Ariel

    January 16, 2009 at 11:54 am

    I was a barbie girl and never had an eating disorder. And I loved LOVED barbie! And I simply understood, looking at my mom, that I’d probably look like her and I was cool with that. 6 Feet and big boobs simply were not in my stack of genetic cards. Barbie was, simply, a pretty doll.
    I have a 5 year old daughter who loves barbies and I’m so fine with that- because she also loves Star Wars (God, the torture! I cannot take whiny Luke one more freaking time this week!)and riding her bike and camping and dancing and music.
    And may I say, in defense of the barbie movies- they always have really good lessons in them- I like them better than Disney…

  • tara

    January 16, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    true confession: my barbies (yep, plural) were taken away from me when i was 5 because i went thru a *phase* (hated that word!) where barbie’s clothes would, oddly, slip right off whenever she was slow dancing with ken. around the same time, someone (not naming names) drew a more anatomically correct-looking wee-wee on ken’s, uh, lump … draw whatever conclusions you’d like from any of this.

  • Asha Dornfest {Parent Hacks}

    January 16, 2009 at 1:06 pm

    My answer to most parenting brouhahas is “really? Is this really worth fighting about?” So I’m generally not a Barbie hater. As a child I played with Barbie (including the most awesome 70s Cabana set). My daughter plays with Barbies as well.
    However, to say that “my kid played with a Barbie and nothing happened” is a little misleading. No one will argue that the day after intense Barbie play most five year-olds will consider Weight Watchers membership. It’s a much longer-term, more subtle message about body image, beauty, gender roles, consumerism, and priorities.
    So while I’m not a 90-pound, bleach blonde, stiletto-wearing Barbie clone despite my years of Barbie play, I think it’s smart to be aware of the message your kids’ toy choices are sending. Just as I talk to my son about toy weapon purchases (and I still draw the line at guns and military toys), I talk to my daughter about her Barbies and baby dolls.

  • jessica

    January 16, 2009 at 1:27 pm

    I loved playing with my Barbies as a child. My mom passed down all her Barbie dolls to me and one day I will pass them down to my daughter. I never struggled with self image. I never once wished I looked like Barbie.
    I agree with Kirstie who wrote in the comments
    “it’s not the dolls your daughter plays with. It’s the attitudes of the people around her that will have the most influence.”
    The only time I was remotely influenced by Barbie was last summer. I purchased a pair of black Marc Jacob plastic flats. They reminded me of my Barbie shoes from childhood. And honestly, that was more childhood nostalgia then anything else. If I decide to buy some pink glittery stilettos, then I’ll be worried.

  • Diaper Cake Becca

    January 16, 2009 at 7:03 pm

    I played with barbies but mostly because my friends did. I remember really wanting the Barbie Jeep and Horse trailer one Christmas and being super excited that Santa brought me that…..but I don’t have any firm memories of actually playing with the barbies.
    I haven’t bought any for my 3 and 4 year old daughters….although I am sure, eventually, I will. I must admit there is a bit of a block in my mind about it. But, honestly, I just don’t want to have to be stepping on the junk in the middle of the night. Barbie’s accesories are more for the kiddos that are cleaning up after themselves….barbie comes with too much stuff!

  • suburbancorrespondent

    January 17, 2009 at 7:58 am

    Note to Diaper Cake Becca: let me know when the “kiddos” reach the cleaning up after themselves stage – I’ve been waiting 17 years. I just make sure to throw out those darn shoes as soon as we buy an outfit, after reading this piece of news.

  • Deb

    January 17, 2009 at 9:27 am

    Inevitably, between yard sales, handmedowns and the like my daughter (now 10) has acquired many barbies. Less said, we figured the better, but we did try when it came up to point out how truly bizarre looking barbies are (heel cord extensions, printed on underwear, no nipples). Our daughter for a long time offered a fairly spirited defense and sometimes would spend hours dressing her barbies up (not unlike the hours she spends designing clothes on paper). But when it came down to it for her, they just weren’t very much fun to play with (in comparison, say, to playmobils). Too big, too inflexible…So now she uses their parts to create frankenstein monsters and seems to have a pretty senisble body image. No harm done, we think.

  • Nell (Deb's daughter)

    January 17, 2009 at 9:34 am

    I’m 10. And I used to love playing with barbies until I realized that their heads came off and then I started switching their heads and making them look different. And I think that Barbie’s proportions are bizarre — though not as bizarre as Bratz. I mean who has a head that’s half their body weight and a waist that’s two inches wide. And I think it’s really bad of the company to make that their example of being a woman. Even Kelly dolls have make up! When I look at a Barbie I think oh I’m glad I don’t look like that. I told my Dad that after I drew dots on the faces of one of my barbies that she had a disease that humans couldn’t get. I don’t think parents should be worried, but don’t tell them that you think that Barbies are pretty. AND Playmobils are way better.

  • Cobs

    January 17, 2009 at 1:53 pm

    I had a Barbie (actually several) as a kid and I didn’t even THINK about the way she looked – to me, she was a stand-in for whatever character my imagination wanted to concot that day (so why not use any other dolls? Because Barbie had all the add ons and she was marketed so well – those pink boxes!) I do remember thinking that I wish my Barbie looked more like me, but I never wanted to look like her – ugh – that hair, got tangled so easily and her heads kept falling off…

  • Que

    January 17, 2009 at 6:08 pm

    I am 15, and I remember making up new episodes of The Bachelor with our many Barbies and one New Kids on the Block Barbie…I don’t think that Barbie affected my perception of body image at all. I was a really independent child, though, and I remember making comments about how Barbie wasn’t realistic and that no one lived their lives or wore clothes like Barbie. (Remember Barbie’s pregnant friend with detachable stomach? THAT was creepy.) What DID make me want to be skinny as a child were the girls around me who were rail-thin and had boyfriends in the 2nd grade. I still made it through okay, though.

  • kate

    January 17, 2009 at 7:42 pm

    I had a couple Barbies, but I just wasn’t that into her. I actually did a project on Barbie to complete my senior year of college. Barbie in the beginning was pretty feminist. She had jobs in a time where many women were in the home. And last I knew, whenever there was a wedding dress, it was always “wedding fantasy” or “bridal dream” so she never (technically) got married. But when I last looked at them, there were definitely a lot of outfits and accessories that screamed SLUT to me much more than LIBERATED WOMAN. And if she’s a vet (for example) why do all of the vet things have to be pink? I just can’t stomach it. I have a little girl and I’m sure that somewhere along the way, she will either want one or be given one. If she is, I think there will be some major wardrobe control. I won’t be going out to buy one for her. At this point, I’m just more concerned with avoiding the disney princess junk and I generally try to avoid character things anyway. I know that Barbie isn’t the antichrist and that it’s not ONE DOLL that is going to define my daughter’s image of herself, but it’s just part of a constant message directed at girls that they are there to be pretty. It’s bigger than one doll and I have the impression that short of not having a TV and carefully choosing books and not letting her see the advertising that is all around us on the streets (we live in a city), there is not that much I can do to protect her from it all.
    Have you seen the packaging girlhood blog?

  • Ally

    January 17, 2009 at 8:54 pm

    I don’t have any children, but I had a bunch of hand-me-down Barbies from my cousin when I was a young’n, and I remember two favorites: one was a blonde and wore a denim jacket, and the other one had a button which made her hair grow. She was the bomb. I’d like to consider myself fairly well-adjusted.
    Now my cousin who owned the Barbies before me…was a boy. (He turned out to be straight.) What do y’all think about boys playing with Barbies?

  • jen

    January 19, 2009 at 9:28 am

    I think it’s not so much the body image as the diva-ish attitude that is irritating about Barbie and her ridiculous Bratz counterparts. But will my daughter grow up to drive a convertible pink corvette with a license plate that reads PRNCESS? Probably not.

  • Stephanie

    January 19, 2009 at 9:57 am

    I swore when my daughter was little (she’s now ten) that I’d never buy her a Barbie. Even though I played with Barbies as a kid and didn’t seem to suffer any damage (I liked setting up elaborate houses for the dolls with boxes and all kinds of recycled junk, then I’d move on to something else as soon as the house was finished), I just didn’t want to expose my daughter to the kinds of images Barbie embodied. My parents ended up buying her a couple of Barbies, against my wishes. My daughter played with them a couple of times and then abandoned them, saying that they were “boring”.
    I think that most little girls go through a stage of sorts where they’re very into princesses and dolls and pretty “girly things”, something I watched my daughter go through and noticed again when my son was in kindergarten. Many of the girls in his class dressed up in very girly type costumes for Halloween that year. But most of them move past that by second grade.
    I say just relax a little and the Barbie obsession will probably pass.
    But, for the record, Bratz dolls were banned from my house (they’re an abomination, Barbie, not so much).

  • Michelle Lamar

    January 20, 2009 at 12:27 am

    I have two daughters. I didn’t take a hard stand on the Barbie issue. I think whatever parents ban from their kids, THAT is what kids want most. One of my daughters loved all the Barbie stuff, one didn’t. I am with Kristie…it’s the attitudes of the people around your daughter that will make the biggest impact.

  • Jill-e-b

    January 20, 2009 at 4:32 am

    I played with Barbies as a kid and it never once occurred to me to aspire to look like my dolls. I just liked all of the different outfits Barbie had. When I was four or five, the person I wanted to look like was Wonder Woman. Even then, I thought there was something unsettling about Barbie’s unnatural proportions.
    My six-year-old niece has Barbie dolls, and when I brought the topic up, she told me that she thought Barbie’s figure was “Weird. People don’t look like that.”
    I’m with Kirstie and Jessica – parental attitudes and example are what make the biggest difference.

  • Fairly Odd Mother

    January 21, 2009 at 7:30 am

    I grew up loving Barbie and probably played it a little TOO long (one particularly memorable moment was when my friend’s mom came down in their ‘rec room’ and found all the Barbies lying down around the pool with a Ken on top of them).
    My girls now have an impressive number of Barbies, a house, a van (which inexplicably has a light-up hot tub attached), a pool, a few cars and loads of clothes which are rarely on their body. Barbie is mostly naked.
    They use them to role play, at least that is what I hear them doing when I sneak up on them. Barbie is such a freak of nature, I don’t remember ever thinking “OH, I want to look like her!”
    Personally, I think a mom who stands in front of a mirror and moans, “I’m so fat!” or throws out all the sweets in a moment of dieting rage is probably going to imprint something more dangerous in the minds of a little girl than a hunk of plastic with DDD’s.

  • Ellen

    January 21, 2009 at 9:30 am

    I loved Barbie; I had Barbie, Midge, and Skipper and the old cardboard Dream House. No Kens, so we had to borrow my brother’s GI Joe. My daughter didn’t play with hers for very long. I think it would be interesting for someone (anyone looking for a thesis idea?) to see if parents who object to girls playing with Barbies also object to boys playing with toy guns. Or video games. My kids had them all, and grew up to be fine upstanding adults. College degrees. No criminal records. No eating disorders.

  • PB Rippey/sleepless mama

    January 22, 2009 at 6:04 pm

    There was definitely a “Barbie mystique” I was aware of, but once I HAD the doll, that went away pretty fast–along with her shoes, which were annoying and disappointing because they never stayed on–in fact her clothes never stayed on properly either or looked as good on her as in the commercials. Poor B. She became just another doll to me and couldn’t hold a candle to my books.

  • Lisa V

    January 23, 2009 at 7:24 pm

    I had Barbie growing up, and it didn’t make me a bubble headed bleach blonde. Loreal and not studying algebra did that.
    I have three daughters aged 17 to 10, they all played or play with Barbie. They had cute clothes, they had slutty clothes. They had VW bugs and houses. But mostly Barbie and all her cloney friends lived in a lesbian colony in ball gowns, with never a Ken darkening the door.
    It didn’t make them think they should be her as a grown-up anymore than they thought they should be an escaped slave like their American Girl Addie doll or belly showing singer like the Shakira doll.
    It’s pretend. It’s fantasy. They know the difference. They don’t aspire to be vampires or Harry Potter as adults either.

  • cagey

    January 24, 2009 at 3:51 pm

    As I always say, my first serious boyfriend did far more damage to my self-esteem and body image than a mutant plastic toy EVER did. I will let my girl play with Barbies if she so desires, all the while trying to teach her to not listen to some fool she happens to date in college.

  • Rita Arens

    January 26, 2009 at 12:40 pm

    I had an eating disorder, and I wished I was as skinny as Barbie. My daughter has about five Barbies.
    If you’re predisposed to an eating disorder, you will grasp on to any example of thinness, because that’s how you’ve decided you don’t measure up in society. It’s a mental health issue that plays itself out physically.
    If I hadn’t had Barbie, I would’ve just obsessed harder over Seventeen and Sassy. I did that, too. If you want to feel bad about your body, you can find plenty of images to obsess on even if your parents lock you in a bubble.
    I play Barbies with my daughter. We talk about how Barbies aren’t really normal, but they’re fun to play with, just as most pets don’t have the same size heads as her Littlest Pet Shop toys (which she also thinks are fun). I worry that she will also be predisposed to an eating disorder, but we’ll cross that bridge when it comes, if it comes. I choose to focus my time on giving her my take on Barbie — she’s not a real person, she’s a doll, and she’s in no way an example of what you should look like when you grow up. I point out that I don’t look like Barbie, that her aunts don’t look like Barbie, that in fact nobody that we know looks like Barbie. She laughs a little when she acknowledges this, and then I feel a little better.
    I’d feel a little better if boys got this talk, too. 🙂
    So yeah, Alice, I think we probably bag on the body-image part of Barbie too much, but the dressing-like-a-streetwalker part of Barbie and Bratz shouldn’t be glossed over. Giving your kid a doll dressed like a harlot is pretty similar to giving your kid her own thong underwear, in my opinion. Too much, too soon.

  • Lyla

    January 30, 2009 at 1:43 pm

    I played with barbies as a kid and I don’t remember ever thinking that I was supposed to look like Barbie. I think they are fine.

  • Savannah

    March 27, 2013 at 2:16 pm

    i’m 17 and a senior in highschool. i decided to do my topic on banning barbie. personally i’m pro-barbie. when i was little i had a whole rubbermaid container of them, plus a corvette, jeep, vw bug and a few horses. i also was giving toy firetrucks and ambulance to play with. i spent most of my time crashing barbies cars, then folding her up to smoosh her into the back of my ambulance. i was raised in a VERY feminist house, with a paramedic for a mom and a firefighter as a dad. i was also told i could do anything a man could do, a meet female race car driver, female firefighters and etc. This life style is still in effect today. im in training to be a firefighter, plus im a mechanic. barbie never had an effect on my body imagine. i knew i would grow up to look like my mamma, which is 5ft tall and not exactly thin, and i was perfectly fine with that. i believe that its the mammas and sister and aunts who effect little girls NOT  a silly little piece of plastic. but i whole heartedly agree that those bratz dolls are just retched. 

  • Elizabeth Dove

    April 4, 2014 at 6:12 pm

    I think your friend had the right idea about her daughter recieving a Barbie. I think the attitude parents throw at Barbies or other iconic American symbols is inheireted by their children. I think its sad to see a thin blond adult woman brag about the way she cut her dolls heads off as a child. Your friend and many other parents (adults, children, etc) have strong opinions about Barbie, and she is just a doll, the child enjoyed it for the moment and moved on. A lecture about poor self-esteem, Barbie’s boob porportion, and how much a dream house would literally cost would have had much long lasting and harmful impact.

  • Delena

    November 19, 2014 at 5:46 am

    Too much emphasis and is given on barbie. It’s essentially just a doll. I’ve had a barbie and I didn’t ever want to try and look like her. It’s a toy. You dress her up, do her hair and get her ready for all sorts of things. If people
    Think too much of this then what should children play with? I think it’s ridiculous. As a parent it’s your job to teach your child right and wrong, values. You would also point out what you want them to wear etc..