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Barbie: A toy with a lasting influence.

Byline: Diane Dietz The Register-Guard

Playing with Barbie dolls may limit a young girl's ideas about what she can do with her life, an Oregon State University study suggests.

In a carefully controlled laboratory study, OSU researcher Aurora Sherman had individual girls play with Barbies - and a control group play with Mrs. Potato Head - and then put depictions of 10 individual careers in front of the girls.

"Could you do this job when you grow up?" the researcher asked each child.

Then, "Could a boy do this job when he grows up?"

The girls who played with Barbies saw themselves in significantly fewer careers than the girls who played with Mrs. Potato Heads, according to the study published Wednesday in the journal Sex Roles.

"Girls are learning something from the toys they play with," Sherman said Wednesday in a telephone interview. "If parents are interested in these results, they might want to take a look at their daughter's toy box, and if it's heavily into fashion dolls, maybe they can try to diversify that toy box a little bit."

Barbie has been prominent in the news in recent weeks after Sports Illustrated magazine raised a ruckus by featuring the doll in its annual swimsuit issue.

Pittsburgh artist Nickolay Lamm cranked up the noise Wednesday by announcing that he would manufacture a Barbie with an average 19-year-old woman's body, as defined by the federal Centers for Disease Control, which makes Mattel's toy look like an alien by comparison.

"Barbie is definitely a cultural touchstone that people really, really love - or really, really don't love," said Sherman, who is an associate professor in OSU's School of Psychological Science.

Sherman said few researchers have tried to understand Barbie's effect on young girls through controlled laboratory work. Most previous research involved surveys of college-age women.

Picking a future

A whopping 99 percent of girls ages 3 to 10 have owned at least one Barbie doll, the researchers said.

Sherman and her co-author, Eileen Zurbriggen of the University of California, Santa Cruz, sought to isolate the doll's influence.

They brought 37 girls ages 4 to 7 into a laboratory at OSU.

Researchers tested each girl individually, allowing them to play with either a fashion Barbie, a Doctor Barbie or a Mrs. Potato Head.

They asked each girl to look at pictures of work spaces that illustrated 10 occupations - half male-dominated and half female-dominated: construction worker, firefighter, pilot, doctor, police officer, teacher, librarian, day care worker, flight attendant and nurse.

"The girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head told us that they could do approximately the same number of those 10 jobs, in the future, as they thought a boy could do," Sherman said. "They didn't distinguish between the number of jobs they thought they could do and the number of jobs they thought a boy could do."

But the girls who played with either Doctor Barbie or fashion Barbie could see themselves doing fewer jobs.

For Mrs. Potato Head players, girls said they could do the equivalent of 4 to 4.5 (out of five) jobs compared with 4.5 jobs they believed boys could do.

But for Barbie players, girls said they could do 3.3 (of five) jobs compared with 4.7 jobs they thought boys could do - a statistically significant difference, Sherman said.

But the big surprise, she said, is that there was no difference between the girls who played with Doctor Barbie and those who played with fashion Barbie. Mattel has re costumed its Barbie, over 55 years, to suggest 150 different careers, including Presidential Candidate Barbie, CEO Barbie and Computer Engineer Barbie.

The researchers found that, despite the white coat and stethoscope, Doctor Barbie and Fashion Barbie weren't all that different.

Fashion Barbie wore a low-cut, V-neck dress with black lace overlay and pink high heels. Doctor Barbie, similarly, wore tight-fitting blue jeans embedded with pink glitter strands and a V-neck shirt under her white coat.

The dolls had the same "unrealistic bodies, extreme youthful and attractive faces, and long full hair - it appears that the doll itself trumps the costuming," Sherman wrote.

The study's findings challenge Mattel's advertising claims that career Barbie can "Be Anything" and boost a girl's ideas about possible careers, Sherman said.

"Perhaps Barbie can 'Be Anything,' but girls who play with her may not apply these possibilities to themselves," her study found.

Barbie as supermodel

In mid-February, Mattel - after a Christmas season with a 13 percent drop in Barbie sales - paid Sports Illustrated to feature the doll in its swimsuit edition, according to news reports. Mattel also produced a Barbie to match the Sports Illustrated supermodel Barbie for sale at Target.

"As a legend herself, Barbie has always been a lightning rod for controversy and opinions," Mattel said in a statement. "Posing in SI gives Barbie and her fellow legends an opportunity to own who they are and celebrate what they have accomplished."

The hashtag for the social media campaign was #unapologetic.

Sherman questioned Mattel's decision to put its children's toy in a hypersexualized context.

The toy company didn't collaborate with a science magazine to sell its Computer Science Barbie, Sherman noted. Nor did it put Teaching Barbie in a teachers' magazine.

"They went for the biggest shock value, the biggest - literally - sex appeal, and I don't think that's accidental," she said. "It's part of a very concerted campaign to limit women's public roles to the most sexy version possible. I don't in any way want to sound anti-sex between consenting adults, but when you're making dolls for children as sexy as possible, I do kind of wonder what the message is there."

Follow Diane on Twitter @diane_dietz. Email


Based on OSU study findings, what's a parent to do about Barbie? Researcher Aurora Sherman said one toy is unlikely to alter a child's career aspirations, but she said it's reasonable to:

Diversify the toy box: If it's a lot of fashion toys, add other kinds of toys; same goes for video games and other media

Encourage active play: Build a spaceship or an airplane for a doll and pretend to send it to the moon or around the world

Explain Barbie: Her shape and size is not humanly possible, and in addition, a child has value way beyond her appearance

Keep Barbie? "We did make the decision not to have Barbie in our house," the researcher said
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Title Annotation:Local News; A researcher's study finds that playing with the doll affects girls' outlook
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Mar 6, 2014
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