Thin dolls like Barbie can make children as young as five want a slimmer body, a new study warns.
UK scientists asked girls between the ages of five and nine to play with two ultra-thin dolls, including Barbie, and two dolls portraying a more realistic body weight.
The two ultra-thin dolls, both made by American toy giant Mattel, immediately reduced the girls’ ideal body size, the researchers found.
Meanwhile, the two realistic dolls – Dora and Lottie – seemed to have no effects on body dissatisfaction.
Thin dolls, combined with exposure to ‘thin ideals’ in films, on TV and social media, could lead to body dissatisfaction in young girls, which has been shown to be a factor in the development of eating disorders.
Exposure to unrealistic body types could put small girls on the path to eating disorders at a tragically young age, the study suggests.
Current widely available dolls tend to have ultra-thin bodies with a projected body mass index between 10 and 16, which is classed as underweight.
The ‘curvy’ Barbies released in 2016 were promoted as more realistic – but they have a size 8 figure and an exaggerated waist-hip ratio, the researchers say.
Realistic childlike dolls used in the study resembled healthy seven- and nine-year old children – and are therefore a better recommendation for children.
Dolls remain highly popular toys across the US and Europe – 2020 US sales figures showed 22 per cent growth in the ‘doll’ category, whilst multinational toy firm Mattel announced 29 per cent growth in Barbie gross sales.
‘Body dissatisfaction is a huge problem, particularly amongst young girls,’ said lead study author Professor Lynda Boothroyd from Durham University’s Department of Psychology.
‘It can have serious consequences for girls’ wellbeing and lead to eating disorders and depression.
‘The results from our study indicate that playing with ultra-thin dolls, which are sold in the millions each year, could have a real negative impact on girls’ body image.
‘This is on top of all the images of unrealistic body sizes they see on TV, in films and on social media.
‘This is something that needs to be addressed in order to reduce the pressure on girls and women to aspire to a thin ideal body.’
For the study, researchers recruited 31 girls aged between the ages of five and nine years old.
Fifteen children were given the ‘ultra thin’ dolls to play with, while 16 were given the ‘realistic childlike’ dolls.
The ultra-thin dolls were Barbie and Monster High – a US franchise also created by Mattel featuring characters inspired by horror and sci-fi.
The realistic childlike dolls were Lottie, which is based on the typical body dimensions of a nine-year-old, and Dora, which resembles a seven-year-old.
In the study, the girls played with the dolls in pairs and before and after their play session, they were asked about their perceived actual body size, ideal body size and ideal adult body size.
Using Daz Studio software, the children were asked to change the body size of a picture of a girl to what they thought they looked like themselves, what they would like to look like and what they thought a beautiful woman looks like.
Researchers found that playing with the ultra-thin dolls reduced girls’ ideal body size in the immediate aftermath of play.
There was no improvement even when they subsequently played with the realistic dolls or cars afterwards, showing that the effects cannot be immediately counteracted with other toys.
The realistic dolls were relatively neutral for girls’ body ideals – suggesting they don’t lead to body dissatisfaction like ultra-thin dolls do.
‘We observed no ill-effects of playing with the realistic childlike dolls in our study,’ Professor Boothroyd told MailOnline.
‘It’s obviously up to parents what toys they provide for their children.
‘It’s important to note that parents have many route to promote positive body image in their children, including working towards a positive body image themselves.’
Eighty per cent of the girls who took part in the study had access to ultra-thin dolls at home or with their friends and almost all of them also watched Disney and related films, which also tend to portray very thin female bodies.
‘This study isn’t intended to make parents feel guilty about what’s in their child’s toy box, and it certainly isn’t trying to suggest that ultra-thin dolls are bad,’ said study author Dr Elizabeth Evans, from Newcastle University’s School of Psychology.
‘What our study provides is useful information that parents can take into account when making decisions about toys.
‘Ultra-thin dolls are part of a bigger picture of body pressures that young children experience, and awareness of these pressures is really important to help support and encourage positive body image in our children.’
The study, which was conducted independently from doll manufacturers, has been published in the journal Body Image.
In a statement to MailOnline, Mattel, the maker of Barbie and Monster High, pointed out that Barbie is the most diverse doll line available in the market.
The firm has in the last few years rolled out a wider range of Barbie designs following calls from the public.
Barbie also has a line called ‘Inspiring Women’ consisting of dolls resembling important female figures.
‘We know the diversity offered in the line is resonating, with one of the top selling dolls globally in our Fashionistas line being a doll that uses a wheelchair,’ a Mattel spokesperson said.
‘Barbie is proud to offer dolls that encourage skills we know are highly valued by parents and are determinants in children’s future emotional, academic, and social success.’