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Barbies, Self-Image and Eating Disorders


Eating disorders affect several million people at any given time. While most women with eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 35, the youngest age of girls who are dissatisfied with or have low body esteem has decreased over the years.

The Barbie brand has often been under attack by critics who say the doll’s unrealistic proportions promote unrealistic physical expectations for girls and women. It’s been suggested that Barbie’s declining sales over the past few years have been due to Barbie’s thin figure at a time when the media is embracing more body diversity.1 Mattel’s response to this is three new body types for Barbies—there will now be curvy, tall, and petite versions in addition to the original Barbie shape.

Ninety-nine percent of American girls have at least one Barbie, with girls 3 to 10 years old owning an average of eight Barbies.2 The desire for thinness emerges in the middle of this age group, during a time when girls most identify with Barbie, and the “thin beauty ideal is gradually internalized through fantasy and play.”3

Media images have been shown to increase body dissatisfaction. After viewing Barbie dolls, girls displayed significantly decreased body esteem, compared to responses after viewing average size dolls, plus size dolls, or inanimate objects.3 This is especially troubling because “body dissastisfaction can lead to serious consequences such as depressed affect and unhealthy eating behaviors, particularly dieting, which, in turn, is a precursor of eating disorders."3

After viewing plus size dolls or neutral images, girls displayed no difference in their body esteem.3 This presents an opportunity to intervene with positive images that may help to prevent the early internalization of body dissatisfaction and later eating disorders.

Having dolls with different body types is only one piece of the puzzle to preventing eating disorders, but it is an opportunity to “understand media as a protective factor.”4 Other ways to prevent body dissatisfaction are to provide media literacy training and for physicians to ask about family media behaviors.4 Girls who do not receive adequate social support and receive pressure to be thin are more vulnerable to negative effects of the media,4 so providing body positive encouragement and support can also be a protective factor.

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, there is help available. Talk to your doctor about the treatment options that are best for you. Learn more about eating disorders and their treatment.


Patients and FamiliesEating Disorders


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