The Barbie Project: The Whole Conversation

The song that never ends.

The song that never ends. (Image source unknown)

We are overdue to change a conversation. A conversation is only as good as the information that travels through it. In order for a conversation to be a good one ideas need to be introduced, then ideas need to shift and evolve. The evolution might feel like an abandonment of principle at first, but it is the natural order to how ideas grow and realign as new information enters improved awareness and understanding.

All that is to say, this conversation we’re having around little girls, Barbie, and body image needs to evolve. We need to change with it. That is not to say we dismiss or forget what has already been discussed, nor disown those who disagree with any particular position. It means we move forward. Together. Because walking and talking in circles doesn’t get any of us very far.

Barbie is made out to be the most villainous of children’s toys, the chief complaint being body image and her “toxicity” to empowered little girls. I can find myself agreeing with some parts of that, for example, I’d love to see Barbie come in different body sizes but I understand from a manufacturing perspective why that doesn’t work (although, it would not be difficult to incorporate into digital and print media). I’d love for retailers to strive for greater diversity and offer children more Barbies of color on the shelves. I’d love for Overtired Working Mom Barbie and Stay-at-Home-Dad/Freelancer Ken. Stores should stock more Career Barbies like the astronaut, presidential candidate, teacher, doctor, veterinarian, and computer programmer. Less brides and more business entrepreneurs is fine by me, which also feels more in tune with the girls of 2015.

Barbie has held 150 careers since the 1950's.

Barbie has held 150 careers since the 1950’s.

But for all this, the conversation about Barbie always goes back to what Barbie looks like. 150 careers later the gal can’t win for losing.

We can’t seem to get over Barbie’s looks, to the exclusion of all other points of conversation. Barbie was never meant to be an exact replica of a human body yet anyone who builds a life-size Barbie is guaranteed a viral Huffington Post article. Any researcher who can gather a handful of young girls to ask a batch of questions about Barbie’s looks and the girls’ lifetime aspirations then publish with a headline grabber like “Barbie’s Long Legs Measurably Crush the Souls of Young Girls” guarantees being highlighted on all the girl empowerment sites, never mind how good the science is or isn’t. Everyone loves to hate Barbie. While we focus ALL of our energy on what Barbie looks like we teach our girls to do the same, ignoring all the careers, places traveled, financial independence, and friendship the Barbie story also offers. The media literacy around body image is very important, but to the exclusion of all other things? When we do that, what are we teaching our daughters is the most important thing about a woman?

Consider the speed at which articles about this super model or that older actress being “brave” or “our beauty hero” for posing in un-retouched photos made public race across the internet and into the nightly news, all while actual achievements by women barely make a blip. I think we are not being honest with ourselves when we simultaneously bash Barbie’s body yet focus our entire conversation on how we look or how someone else looks. If the bravest thing a woman can do in 2015 is show up in public free of make up and Photoshop we’ve got MUCH bigger problems than Barbie.

The intent of my words is not to defend Barbie, rather I’m asking if we all can expand this well-intentioned conversation we’re having. We’re missing the whole conversation. Life isn’t black and white. Life is full of gray, full of “yes, buts…” and “on the other hand” and new perspectives.

Image from The Barbie Project.

Image from The Barbie Project.

I find myself wondering, are we really being honest with ourselves or distracting ourselves when we use every mention of Barbie bear the cross of all negative body image issues? Let’s allow body image to be part of the conversation, and then let’s keep talking, observing, listening, discussing. After a year on The Barbie Project, I’m not convinced this is how little girls see their dolls until we teach them to. Granted the Barbie brand extends over multiple media platforms (toys, clothing, books, cartoon dvds) but at the end of the day, for most children, she is just a doll laying on the bedroom floor. Probably naked.

Over the years I’ve asked my large social media community when was the first time they can remember as a child feeling as though some part of their body was “flawed”. The second part of the question is who played a role in assisting that realization? What began as research for my book is now a bi-annual cathartic, eye-opening event. Hundreds of answers later reveal insecurities ranging from too much body hair to refusing to shave, skin color being too pale to too dark, hair color being too red or not blond enough, being too thick, being too thin, being too tall, being too short, needing a bra early to not needing a bra until college, having freckles, crooked teeth, acne……the list went on. And the people who made these insecurities rise when these women were girls? Moms. Aunts. Grandmas. Fathers and step-fathers and uncles. Classmates, from the first day of kindergarten all the way to middle school. Other parents. Teachers. Doctors. Friends. Above all, moms were mentioned over and over and over again.

Yet no one mentioned Barbie. Literally not once in any of these threads has the toy been mentioned which is why I find the preoccupation with her looks to be so very distracting from the larger conversation we could be having, for which Barbie should be a part of but not the entire focus. I think bashing Barbie really isn’t the whole conversation and when it is, we lose sight of where our focus and energy should really be in order to bring about meaningful change for girls and women.

Let’s focus on what women do, instead of what they look like.

Let’s focus on our individual influence and impact on the children in our lives.

Let’s recognize that Barbie as she is now represents one kind of beauty, but WE should be the ones defining endless versions of beauty and making it more inclusive, expansive for our daughters.

Barbie is a complicated doll, and can mean many things in many different ways. Perhaps that is a good thing to teach our girls - Women are layered and complex and not linear beings.

Barbie is a complicated doll, and can mean many things in many different ways. Perhaps that is a good thing to teach our girls – Women are layered and complex and complicated. (Image via When You Choose Hope)

I think we are wringing our hands and giving Barbie way too much power as we simultaneously fail to see our own. If there is one thing we teach our girls, it is that we should care more about what we DO with our life than how we look living it. If anything embodies this that belief I hold to my core, it is this comment left in the thread about when in girlhood did you come to understand your body was seen as “flawed”:

I was nine; I’d just played Bach’s ‘Minuet in G’ on the piano, for my school’s Parents’ Day. This was in Pakistan, where almost no one learns to play musical instruments; it was a big deal and had involved a lot of work. I was incredibly proud of myself. Photos were taken of all the performers and displayed on the school notice board.
As I approached the board, people were laughing and pointing. They’d found a photo of me. I looked at the photo, and for the first time, I realised that my cheeks were chubby, and that when I concentrated, my mouth fell open. I looked stupid.
That was the moment when I became aware that I was an object. I didn’t have words for it, but I knew that it didn’t matter what great things I did – what mattered, and what I would always fail on, was how I looked while I did it.
From then on, I’ve never been able to do anything with my full attention. One part of my mind has always been nervously policing the way I look: can I hold my chin higher to hide my cheeks? Is my mouth neatly set? Is my face pleasant? And I wonder what amazing things I could have achieved (or could achieve, still!) if I was freed from that mental burden.” -Noreen

When I read Noreen’s comment, tears sprung to my eyes and I gasped for air. Tears sit in my eyes now. I think about the mental energy women and girls waste thinking about how they look instead of what they do. I think about what the world has missed out on, contributions left ungiven and I feel a painful weight on my chest. I anguish over the amazing girls we are raising who might choose to sit something out because of worry over being pretty or worry about that she is worried about being pretty, and instead of taking over the world she remains still in a world of self doubt.

Our conversation currently is running like this: Instead of what a woman can accomplish or discover or enact or defend – we bring it back to what she looks like. Instead of what girls say or think or whom they inspire or rescue – we bring it back to what she looks like. Just like we do with the conversation about Barbie, which is like the song that never ends.

I’m asking us to shift the conversation. Can we evolve it, please? For example, there are some little girls out there with some incredibly confident mamas who are bashing the heck out of all of these stereotypes and we’re doing it by using Barbie and play as a teaching tool instead of an instrument of demise. We’ve chosen to take a step back, get a few deep breaths, talk out the tricky spots, and sit on the floor to play so that we can see the world through our daughters’ eyes.

I don’t care whether or not you or your kid plays with Barbie, I just hope you find inspiration from some of these posts and understand the conversation has to evolve past what we look like and move to WHAT. WE. DO.

We should care more about what we DO with our life than how we look living it.

Ruby's daughter exploring outer space.

Ruby’s daughter exploring outer space. (Image via GUB Life.)

Yolanda, on learning through play with her daughter. “She’s taught me so much more about body image and self love that I could have ever done.”

Ruby explores a rich heritage and cultural tradition through fashion design. ” I shared that grandma (my mama) has an embroidered dress given to her as a gift, something very common in our culture. I got to wear it a few times.”

Brandy empowers her daughter by allowing her freedom to choose her own wardrobe. “It’s clear she was expressing her adorable self and her growing little personality.”

Eliana discusses how dolls become a girl’s friend. “At her age, and with her individual circumstances, Barbie is a friend of hers.”

Tammi witnessed her shy twin daughter finding her voice. “Katie is finding her way. Her strength. Her ability to shine and be the star of the show after all these years.”

Kara and her daughter explore the difficult truth of how segregation and racism impacted their family. “As she played I asked her how she would feel if she was not allowed to go into certain places just because of the color of her skin.”

Kara's daughter explore social justice through play. (Image source Empower Her Inc)

Kara’s daughter explore social justice through play.
(Image source Empower Her Inc)

Jenny sees the power of children’s imaginations. “We tend to lose sight of how much we can add with our minds by expecting everything to be realistic and tangible.”

Brandy learns the power that mermaid effect holds on a timid swimmer. “The whole way home she talked about how she couldn’t wait to swim like a mermaid in class tomorrow.”

Ruby’s daughter travels out of this world to the moon. “Walking on the moon with Barbie was definitely done in an unexpected way.”

Yolanda discovers her daughter is a business mogul in the making. “I walked in on my daughter playing with her Barbies and overheard the dialog she had for her dolls. Her dolls had taken on the roles of my friends and I, and as such, each was a business owner, freelancer and influencer.”

Tammi sees what has been important to her three daughters over the year. “Again the summer memories are brought back to the forefront as their experience is reenacted in play.”

Eliana realizes Barbie is a reflection of her daughter’s unique personality. “Barbie has the most amazing and beautiful shoes any woman can dream of, but many times my daughter decides to let her walk barefoot and just have fun. Barbie is the reflection of my daughter’s personality and interests.”

You can read my Barbie Project posts here, where my daughter and I focused on all the incredible things her imagination can do with a doll dressed for 150 careers, who drives a jeep and a hot pink camper.

The confident, intelligent, diverse, amazing group of moms blogging for The Barbie Project as we coach our daughters through girlhood.


Barbie Project LogoLearn more about The Barbie Project and meet the other bloggers on the project.

On twitter, look for hashtag #BarbieProject and join the conversation.

{Disclosure: This is a compensated campaign as part of The Barbie Project. All thoughts and ideas are my own.}


Melissa Atkins Wardy is a speaker, media consultant, and the author ofRedefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween. She is the creator and owner of Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies, a company that has been offering empowering apparel and gifts to Full of Awesome kids since 2009

Find her at You can read her blog or connect with her on Facebook (Pigtail Pals Ballcap Buddies) and Twitter (@PigtailPals).



  1. It seems like there’s been a shift from thinking Barbie has the “perfect” body type for which girls should strive to attain, to let’s do all we can to avoid looking like Barbie. But the common theme with each focus is appearance. Females deserve to be measured by more than that. We are not just bodies walking around. We are humans, with minds and ideas and *gasp* thoughts of our own. As the commenter you quoted above says, just imagine what we can achieve if we take worrying about appearance or body image out of the equation.

  2. **applauding** I totally agree with you, while we as parents always have to think about that dreaded negative body image and the suck that it is – the big picture should never be ignored. For my girls, the positive far outweighs the good. Plus, we can’t hate on Barbie for having a certain body type – that’s missing the point entirely, or taking steps backward!

    Side note, it was great getting to know you this past year Melissa. See? Barbie friendships rock – even as adults! 😉

    • These friendships do rock! It has been wonderful getting to know you and your incredible girls over this past year. Now we need to get these girlies together at Barbie Headquarters to meet the Barbie Team. Can you *imagine* the ideas that would come out of that meeting?!

  3. I have to say something: I WANT to love Barbie!! She was a huge part of my childhood–most of my play revolved around her, but what this post has made me realize is that it had little to do with how she looked. I *loved* dressing her and messing with her hair (often permanently messing UP her hair) and my little brother played with me for hours on end. I thought (until recently) that my body image issues were because of Barbie. But actually…my love for storytelling, my active imagination, and my sense of design all evolved out of playing with my dolls (mostly Barbies. I adored Skipper because I thought she was closer to my age, and yes, because she was flat-chested. To me, that just meant she wasn’t an adult, hence more relatable; not entirely because of how she looked).

    I see this over and over right now: we demonize one aspect of a social movement and it distracts us from looking any deeper. And then if someone reaches out to the Demon in the interest of having a full conversation, the Reacher Outer is demonized. The MOST important thing is love and respect, and without it, we CANNOT and WILL not move forward. That’s just how the universe works. And all these conversations are exercises in refining our skills at loving and respecting others, even if we can’t see a way to disagree.

    Do we “lose” if the “other side” never sees and/or agrees fully with our point of view? No, I think we only lose if we didn’t try to have the conversation. So, thanks, Melissa for reaching out.

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