Ever since the first Barbie was created in 1959, flaunting bleach blonde hair, high-heel-ready feet, and unrealistically sexy body proportions, it became more than just a doll for almost every girl. Barbie represented everything little girls wanted to be when they grew up. Over the year, she became a doctor, vet, and computer engineer, and changed appearance from white-skinned and thin to black with Afro hairstyle and curvy figure, to even a saree clad Barbie. The recent addition is most novel and real — Barbie with Down Syndrome, depicting disability through prosthetic.
The first Barbie created by Ruth Handler was inspired by a German doll called Lilli and named after Handler’s daughter Barbara. At that time, many men had laughed at the launch stating, ‘Nobody would want to play with a doll with breasts.’ Clearly, all of them were wrong and Barbie became a member of every household across the globe.
“Barbie is not only a doll but a representation of how a girl would set their standards while growing up. Barbie is good for children to understand the body but I feel it sets a very unrealistic image for girls about how they should look, which is having a perfectly toned body and they feel conscious about that. The new range seems to be more inclusive and sensible to make children understand all races and multicultural society. They would know that you don’t need to be blonde but can have a physical ailment and that’s accepted,” says Counseling Psychologist Jacinta Jones.
Broader view of beauty
The new range of Barbie features dolls with Down Syndrome, vitiligo, no hair and prosthetic limbs and a darker skin tone. The new dolls join the diverse Barbie fashionistas range. The line also includes Barbies on wheelchairs projecting the reality of the world. “It is a good move. It may be just a marketing tactic but these dolls influence girls and boys,” says 13-year-old author Manaswini Agarwal, who has a collection of Barbie dolls. “These dolls are relatable as opposed to aspirational. These dolls reflect what girls grow up seeing around them — the body types, skin tones and styles. This allows girls to pick a doll that looks like them or someone they like, or someone they relate to.”
Dolls for all
Although, initially, Barbie raised concerns about perpetuating outdated and unrealistic expectations for young girls and teaching women what is expected of them in society, the makers decided to address that. Steadily from the start of the 21st century, Barbie has been rehashed in four different body types – Original, tall, petite, and curvy. Down Syndrome is the fifth type that appeals to the specially-abled children. This evolution led to controversies.
“I have a son with Down Syndrome and I can understand how relatable it can be. I don’t have a Barbie because I never appreciated its unrealistic look,” says Vandana Reddy, a mother of a nine-year-old son with Down Syndrome and a media professional. “This is a sensible move and I hope it creates a little awareness around Down Syndrome among children and parents as well.”
Urvashi Verma, a mother of a two-year-old daughter with deformity, expects there will be Barbies and other dolls with more such representations. “You don’t differentiate between your child but when they grow up they don’t find acceptance in society. If there are toys which have inclusive representation, there will be more awareness and more acceptance of all kinds of children,” says Urvashi.
Diversity is the key
Focusing on disability representation and diversity inclusion reflects the diversity kids see in the world around them. In this environment, a new generation of mothers prefer what they see as more empowering toys for their daughters. “This diverse view in dolls will help girls grow up to be more sensitive towards those who are part of the same society and not try to fit themselves into criteria of being perfect,” says Mitali Thakkar, a banker and a mother of an eight-year-old daughter. “I would not mind my daughter having a range of Barbies which come in different sizes and looks including the ones with prosthetics or Down Syndrome. It’s sensible of parents to introduce their kids to many realities through their favourite toys so when they grow up it’s not a surprise for them and become more empathetic.”
Back home in India, Barbie and other toys which represent different identities have lesser acknowledgement. “Children come to the store and play with them but when it comes to buying they pick up the old one. I see parents also motivating their children to pick up the one their friend has, so it’s more about peer pressure. I think children with disabilities will connect with these toys more. As of now, there’s not much change in buying habits,” says Pooja Kalash of Kidz Mart stores in conclusion.