The untold truth of Barbie

What is one of your earliest memories? Chances are Barbie was involved. Whether you were braiding her hair, decorating her dream house, or turning your bathtub into her pool party, Barbie was probably a part of your life for quite some time.

Full name Barbara Millicent Roberts and hailing from the fictional town of Willows, Wisconsin, Barbie has been around for over 50 years and is an iconic part of childhood for many little girls and a few boys. Perhaps because she has been around for so long, Barbie has a few skeletons in her closet. From being based off an adult’s gag gift to affecting girls’ self esteem, there is a lot more to Barbie than meets the eye.

She was inspired by paper dolls

Like paper dolls, Barbie comes with lots of tiny accessories and has a completely unrealistic body type. When Ruth Handler, the creator of Barbie, noticed her daughter ignoring her baby dolls and instead choosing to play with paper dolls, it got her thinking. She realized that little girls had a desire to play with adult dolls so she set out to create one.

While Handler may not have talked about it much, the inspiration for Barbie came from more than just a few paper dolls. Barbie has a slightly creepy past…

She wasn’t meant for kids

Want to hear something disturbing? The original doll that inspired Barbie was not meant for children at all. She was actually used as a gag gift at bachelor parties. I know, I’m nauseated too. The Bild Lilli dolls were released in Germany in 1952 and were actually based off of an adult comic strip. Lilli was a rather saucy single lady and seemed to be pretty popular with the gentlemen.

“Men got Lilli dolls as gag gifts at bachelor parties, put them on their car dashboard, dangled them from the rearview mirror, or gave them to girlfriends as a suggestive keepsake,” author of Barbie and Ruth Robin Gerber told Time.

Lilli was definitely much more sexualized than Barbie. In one comic strip, Lilli is wearing a bikini while a police officer tells her two-piece swimsuits are illegal, to which Lilli asks, “Oh, and in your opinion, which part should I take off?” Despite their different personalities, you can’t deny the physical resemblance between Lilli and Barbie. While the Handler family was vacationing in Switzerland in 1956, Ruth and her daughter brought three of the Lilli dolls home with them.

She was in the some of the first commercials for kids

For younger generations, it’s hard to remember a time when there were no commercials for kids. This was actually a revolutionary idea in the ’50s. So I guess all of the parents here have Barbie to thank for our kids’ incessant whining about the latest toy that they just need that they only discovered on a commercial five minutes ago.

Mattel, the company that created Barbie, was the first to sponsor and advertise on the Mickey Mouse Club. When Barbie joined those ranks, she quickly became popular and it wasn’t long before she needed some friends. Ken, Midge, and Skipper all joined her in the early 1960s.

She chose not to have children

Barbie has had just about every job under the sun. This woman went from being an astronaut to a doctor to the president of the United States. Is it any wonder that she never decided to have children?

Mattel purposely never gave Barbie children, so that girls could be creative and make her anything they wanted. There are Barbie dolls that come with babies, but we’re not sure who the parents are. Barbie has younger sisters, but she and Ken never tied the knot.

She doesn’t get her period

Here’s a depressing thought. Barbie doesn’t just look oddly thin. Her body type is extremely unhealthy, at least if she were a real person. Barbie has long been criticized for her incredibly unrealistic figure, but it goes beyond just being unrealistic. In fact, according to BBC News researchers in Finland found that if Barbie were a real person, she would not menstruate, because her body fat percentage would not be high enough. Hard to justify that one Mattel, isn’t it?

Her figure made waves

Speaking of Barbie’s figure, mothers in the 1950s weren’t thrilled with it, and it wasn’t because she was too thin. When Barbie came along, she looked nothing like the sweet and innocent baby dolls that girls were already playing with. Parents didn’t love that Barbie looked so “mature.” However, Handler was always unapologetic about this.

”Every little girl needed a doll through which to project herself into her dream of her future,” Handler told the New York Times. ”If she was going to do role playing of what she would be like when she was 16 or 17, it was a little stupid to play with a doll that had a flat chest. So I gave it beautiful breasts.”

Handler wanted Barbie to be older than a child, so that girls could live out their futures through her. According to the New York Times, Handler wrote in her autobiography, ”My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be. Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.”

She has some big fans

When it comes to dolls, there are always going to be some fanatic collectors out there. Even though Barbie herself (unlike Lilli) was marketed to children from the start, there are plenty of collector’s edition dolls, as well as adults who just love her.

One of those adults, Bettina Dorfmann, actually owns over 15,000 Barbie dolls and set the Guinness World Record in 2011. “It drives my husband mad when I bring a new doll home,” she told Metro. I can imagine.

Dorfmann is so passionate about the dolls that she actually runs a doll hospital out of her home, so it’s tough to say just how many dolls are in her home at any given time. The good news is, if you still haven’t found your passion in life, don’t worry about it. At least it isn’t maintaining a home with over 15,000 Barbie dolls in it.

She and Ken have broken up before

On February 14, 2011, Barbie and Ken decided to try things again and get back together, but many of us never knew they broke up in the first place! The couple actually broke up in 2004, so this was quite the separation. Barbie announced the good news where we all would… her Facebook page!

Facebook comments included supportive encouragement like, “Finally! It took you long enough, girl! So happy! Barbie and Ken Forever” from Louise Parker and “awww congrats barbie & ken!..u guys r awesome!” from Dolly Groh. However, not everyone was celebrating.

Lela Messick was worried that Barbie may be wasting her time. “good luck! I hope it works out this time but really…its time for him to put a ring on it, don’t you think?” she asked. Danielle Burtzloff wasn’t into the reunion either. “Seriously, Barbie — he lacks anatomically-correct male goods… keep it solo girlfriend,” she advised. I’m sure this is just coincidence, but Mattel did release a new Ken doll less than a month after this convenient reunion.

She has her own restaurant

You know those moments when you just love Barbie so much, you want to eat with her? Now all you have to do is travel to Taiwan to eat at the Barbie-themed restaurant. “We picked Taiwan because theme restaurants are very popular and successful here. We are very confident that the Barbie Cafe can promote our brand image,” Mattel manager Iggy Yip told the New York Daily News.

The cafe is a place for adults and children alike. “My child and I both love Barbie and this lovely and cute place is like a dream come true for us,” Taipei resident Jessica Ho told the Daily News. “I will take her here to celebrate her next birthday.”

She may be spying on you

In 2015, Mattel launched “Hello Barbie,” which contained a microphone and Wi-Fi connection so that when children talked to her, the doll could respond. The problem was that the recorded children’s voices were going to be saved on cloud servers. Creepy? For sure. Illegal? Maybe. The Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC) wasted no time taking this on. “Kids using ‘Hello Barbie’ aren’t only talking to a doll, they are talking directly to a toy conglomerate whose only interest in them is financial,” CCFC’s Executive Director Dr. Susan Linn said in a statement. “It’s creepy — and creates a host of dangers for children and families.”

Georgetown Law Professor Angela Campbell had major concerns as well. “If I had a young child, I would be very concerned that my child’s intimate conversations with her doll were being recorded and analyzed,” she said. “In Mattel’s demo, Barbie asks many questions that would elicit a great deal of information about a child, her interests, and her family. This information could be of great value to advertisers and be used to market unfairly to children.”

“Hello Barbie” also prompted concerns about kids’ social interaction and development. “‘Hello Barbie’ not only discourages the kind of creative play essential for learning and development, it ensures that Mattel — not the child — is driving the play,” warned Dr. Linn.

She now comes in three body types

In 2015, Barbie finally moved past her insane proportions and released a new line of dolls ranging in body shapes. The Fashionistas line contains three types: small, curvy, and petite. They also come in a variety of skin colors, hair colors, and wait for it… flat feet.

“Barbie has always given girls choices — from her 180 careers, to inspirational roles, to her countless fashions and accessories,” Senior Vice President and Global General Manager Barbie Evelyn Mazzocco shared. “We are excited to literally be changing the face of the brand — these new dolls represent a line that is more reflective of the world girls see around them — the variety in body type, skin tones and style allows girls to find a doll that speaks to them.” Slow. Clap.

She is bad at math

In 1992, Mattel was in trouble for a different talking Barbie, not because she could record children’s voices, but because of what she said to them. “Teen Talk Barbie” said four random phrases chosen from a list of 270. That is, until women’s groups got involved. One of the phrases said, “Math class is tough.” Groups like American Association of University Women were very concerned about the kind of message this would send to young girls. Mattel ended up removing that phrase.

Mattel president Jill E. Barad wrote a letter to the association to apologize. “In hindsight, the phrase ‘math class is tough,’ while correct for many students both male and female, should not have been included,” she wrote. “We didn’t fully consider the potentially negative implications of this phrase, nor were we aware of the findings of your organization’s report,” wrote Barad as reported to the New York Times.

She now blurs gender lines

Barbie has never held back when it comes to her look. Designer cars, formal gowns, and stilettos are just a normal day for her. Perhaps that is why she jumped at the chance to collaborate with an unlikely pair. The Blonds are glamorous and androgynous fashion designers who have always loved Barbie. Now it’s safe to say that Barbie loves them back. Mattel released a Barbie inspired by the designers.

“One of the great things about Barbie is that she continues to push the envelope,” Mattel Vice President Cathy Cline told the New York Times. “Barbie doesn’t worry about what other people think.”

The Blonds are all about glamour, so Barbie was a perfect fit. “Fashion is a form of self-expression and we believe that everyone should feel glamorous every day,” Phillipe Blond said.

Her designer defends her crazy proportions

Barbie has long been criticized for how thin she is. She now comes in a few new sizes, but the majority of the dolls still look like the traditional model and this doesn’t seem to be changing any time soon. Kim Culmone, vice president of design for Barbie, sees nothing wrong with her figure. “Barbie’s body was never designed to be realistic. She was designed for girls to easily dress and undress,” Culmone told Co Design. “And she’s had many bodies over the years, ones that are poseable, ones that are cut for princess cuts, ones that are more realistic.”

Culmone revealed that while Barbie’s figure is ” a continual evolution,” there is also a historical component to keep in mind. “This is a 55-year-old brand where moms are handing clothes down to their daughters, and so keeping the integrity of that is really important,” she said.

Culmone also isn’t buying the fact that Barbie affects young girls and their body images. “Girls view the world completely differently than grown-ups do. They don’t come at it with the same angles and baggage and all that stuff that we do,” said Culmone. “Clearly, the influences for girls on those types of issues, whether it’s body image or anything else, it’s proven, it’s peers, moms, parents, it’s their social circles.”

She can make young girls feel bad about themselves

Despite Kim Culmone’s best attempts at defending the ultra skinny doll, the research disagrees.  From a very young age, girls want to feel thin and beautiful. According to a study in the journal Paediatrics & Child Health, playing with an unattainably thin doll does affect how girls see themselves. In this study, girls were given Barbie dolls to play with, then asked questions about their self-esteem. Their self-esteem levels were significantly lower. However, when the girls played with average or plus size dolls, there was no effect on self-esteem.

Her sales are down

Perhaps studies like the one linking Barbie to lowered self-esteem are one of the reasons why Barbie isn’t selling like she used to. As a mom to a five year-old daughter, I don’t plan on buying her Barbie dolls. There are just so many better options out there. It’s clear that I’m not the only one who feels that way. Mattel’s stock is down in 2017, and decreased Barbie demand is partly to blame. In July 2017, Barbie sales were down five percent, despite the new Fashionista line. 

Then again, the best-selling Barbie of all time was the “Totally Hair Barbie” from 1992, suggesting that maybe Mattel is just taking the wrong approach for keeping Barbie fans interested. I was obsessed with crimping her hair, and I wasn’t the only one. According to the Guinness World Records, more than 10 million “Totally Hair” Barbies were sold. Maybe it’s time for Mattel to go back to the basics. That neon pink dress, those awesome earrings? She was irresistible.

She has a vlog

One area where Mattel does seem to be keeping pace is with Barbie’s careers. Like many millennial professionals, Barbie has ditched her traditional day jobs and is now getting into vlogging. She launched her YouTube channel in 2015, and her first guests included her sisters and boyfriend Ken. Her channel now has over two million followers! How many does yours have again? Barbie continues to prove that she can pretty much be successful at anything and that’s pretty inspiring for kids everywhere.

She has her own convention

For the Barbie super fans out there, there is a place to connect and bond over your love of this iconic doll. For the low, low price of $450 (unless you act now and snag early bird registration for just $400), you can join over 800 of your favorite Barbie-loving friends at the Barbie Convention. So if you’re a Barbie lover, grab your plane ticket and meet some new friends. Maybe you could all take a trip to Taiwan to dine with your favorite doll?