Is Barbie a Good Self-Image Model for Our Kids?

Last week, I was out at the beach, walking through knee-deep water. On these walks, I pass a lot of families playing in the shallows with small children, something I always enjoy. On this particular day, a mother held one hand of her daughter who might have been about five years old. In the other hand, the little girl held a Barbie doll that was semi-submerged in the water. It just seemed so odd that such a small child would even have a Barbie doll. Odder still that the child would like it so much that it had to not only go to the beach with her, it had to swim with her.

I looked at that doll in the water, clutched in that small hand and I was struck with with a dreadful thought about the possible impact of this doll. What if? What if Barbie dolls had not been marketed to American children starting in 1959? What if it had just never existed at all? If we had no such doll, would breast augmentation surgery be as popular as it is? Would liposuction be used as a way to achieve some imaginary ideal of small waist and hips—like a Barbie? Could Barbie have been a trigger that launched the popularity of reshaping one’s body with plastic surgery?

Just between 1997 and 2014, an estimated 4.7 million breast augmentation procedures were done. (This number does not include reconstructive surgeries for women who have had mastectomies.) Breast implants are actually the top seller for cosmetic surgery.

In 1997, there were more than 200,000 liposuction procedures done. By 2016, that number was up to 414,000.

Just using my imagination for a moment, I imagined someone in the plastic surgery industry hitting on the idea of selling small girls this doll with exaggerated female characteristics. What glee that person might have felt as he or she pictured young girls growing up with the idea that they should look just like Barbie. After all, Barbie has friends, boyfriends, pets, cars, fancy houses and TONS of clothes. So she must be really popular and successful.

Could there be any more effective—or more subtle and insidious—way to develop a future market for their surgical services? We can’t do a “do-over” on Barbies, going back to 1958 and preventing their development. We can only give the matter some thought and make our own decisions about the influences we expose our impressionable children to.

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