Does Barbie Make Girls Want to Be Thin? The Effect of Experimental
Exposure To Images of Dolls on the Body Image of
to 8-Year-old Girls
BARBIE AND GIRLS' BODY IMAGE
BARBIE AND GIRLS' BODY IMAGE
Does Barbie Make Girls Want to Be Thin? The Effect of Experimental Exposure To Images of Dolls on the Body Image of 5- to 8-Year-old Girls
I'm fat. I want to be thinner. I want longer legs. I want a perkier butt and breasts. I want straight hair. I want curly hair. I want a smaller nose. I want more toned calves. I wish I were taller. These are very familiar thoughts to most girls and a lot of boys, too. These thoughts plagued me most heavily during and immediately after puberty. I was embarrassed about my maturing body and wished I were developing faster while simultaneously wishing I weren't developing at all. It's an important issue because body dissatisfaction results in negative self-perception, depressed mood, and disordered eating (Dittmar, Halliwell, & Ive, 2006). It's a mystery what gets girls started thinking like this and when -- or at least it has been until a recent study by Helga Dittmar, Emma Halliwell, and Suzanne Ive looked at this question in relation to outside influences like Barbie dolls.
The study was a quasi-experimental look at the causality of Barbie dolls and negative body image. Barbie is not an arbitrary target, but singled out for her longevity, ubiquity, unattainable proportions, and status as a tool of socialization. According to the article, if she were life-size, she would be the skinniest woman in 100,000 women -- skinnier than anorexics, so underweight that she would not be able to menstruate. But not only that, her other proportions, legs and breasts, were even more wildly unrealistic. As a control, the researchers used the doll, Emme, a collectors' doll of size 16 proportions, and also no doll -- "neutral" images.
Dittmar, Halliwell, and Ive's specific research questions address whether images of Barbie have an immediate negative impact on five- to eight-year-old girls' body image, whether exposure to a more reasonable doll like Emme result in the same detrimental effects, and how exposure to "neutral" images compared. They chose five to eight-year-old girls because of a 2003 conclusion that girls start wanting to be thin around age six (Lowes & Tiggemann).
The research instrument used was the Revised Body Esteem Scale (R-BES) and a questionnaire with pictorial measures of size, both supposed to be suitable for young children. The R-BES measured children's thoughts and feelings about their appearance and how they believed other perceived them, and had a split-half reliability coefficient of r=.85. The pictorial measure, where the girls picked the figure that best represented their actual body size, the figure that showed their ideal body size, and the figure for the body size they would like as adults, had a test-retest reliability coefficient of r=.71 for actual size, r=.59 for ideal size, and r=.55 for ideal adult size.
The researchers used a sample of 162 girls, ages five to eight, in a predominantly white, middle-class school in East Sussex county, UK. The age groups (five to six, six to seven, and seven to eight) were roughly equal, and the three treatment groups (randomly assigned) within the age groups were also roughly equal. The girls were pulled out of class two or three at a time and the experimenter read them a story after explaining that their participation was optional, there were no wrong answers, and their answers would be kept secret.
The girls were supplied with a story book of laminated, spiral bound pages about a shopping excursion. The books were the same, except for the presence of Barbie doll images, Emme doll images, or lack of doll images. The story was read aloud, and then the books were collected so all the girls had the same amount of time with the images.
Dittmar, Halliwell, and Ive first correlated the results of the two research instruments, finding coefficients from .65 to .69 for the different groups. They also found that girls seven to eight had more extreme discrepancies between actual body size and ideal body size. The two younger groups showed that their body image went down significantly after seeing Barbie, but not at all after seeing Emme or the neutral images. The older group was unaffected by images of Barbie, or the neutral images, but their body image did decrease after seeing the size 16 Emme doll. The researchers explained the non-effect of Barbie for the older girls by saying that the desire for thinness has been internalized by that point and is no longer so sensitive to external stimuli. They hypothesized that the Emme-effect was because the older girls saw her as an omen/threat of what they would be when they grew up.
They researchers could only measure short-term exposure in a cross-section of young girls. They also would have like detailed information about how many Barbies each girl had and about the evolution of their play with those dolls. Additionally, they would have liked to measure body dissatisfaction before the treatment, as well as after, for more definitive findings on the effect the images had on each girl individually, as opposed to as a whole.
I don't have the education or the experience that the two authors have, but there were a number of red flags for me in this article. The first one was the reliability of the research instruments. The reliability of the R-BES was .85, which is good, but then the researchers shortened that test, which likely lowered the reliability. And then there were the coefficients for the pictorial measures. A number like .71 is adequate, especially since it's difficult to get high reliability when working with human subjects, not to mention children, but .59 and .55 to me are completely inadequate. And that right there makes me doubtful of their findings.
The second red flag was confounding variable of exposure to other media like advertisements and magazines featuring surgically and digitally enhanced women. The researchers couldn't control this, but they didn't even survey the girls or their parents to try and measure their amount of exposure, so I'm not sure they can say that Barbie causes girls to feel bad about their bodies. Maybe Barbie is the culprit, but I worry that Dittmar, Halliwell, and Ive didn't discuss the social context any further.
The other confounding variable I identified was which girls had any Barbies at home to play with. They cited statistics that said it was likely that most of the girls had the dolls, but I think it would have been interesting to find those girls who didn't and compare their results to the larger sample.
I also took issue with the quality and age-appropriateness of the research instrument. Statements like, "Children my own age like my looks," seemed contrived and easy to misunderstand for a five-year-old. The sample images (frowny face with a cloud, straight face, and smiley face with a sun) were also very poor quality. Which brings me to my next qualm, which was the quality and subject matter of the story book.
There were no sample images, but based on the R-BES images, I don't have high hopes for them, and the pages were laminated and spiral bound. It would cost four dollars to get a professionally printed and bound paperback storybook, and I think that would be money well-spent because children can see shoddy work just as well as adults. A lot of people would say they're just children; they don't care. But children notice. And then there was the subject, shopping. It was selected because it is relevant to the girls' experience and would engage their interest, but I would worry that shopping for clothes would also induce feelings of self-doubt and would again confound the results of the experiment.
My last worry was about the procedure. I think a young girl being pulled out of class with one or two other young girls would already be feeling a little self-conscious, and stressing the secrecy of their answers might make them feel like they should be ashamed of their answers.
My Research Question
I would like to duplicate this study with some important alterations. First I would administer a pretest to determine each girls' individual baseline for body image, and I would survey the parents for the information about the parents' thoughts and feelings about body image, their daughters' interaction with dolls, as well as the girls' exposure to other media. It would also be great if there were parents who agreed not to get Barbies for their girls, and for other parents to get more reasonable proportioned dolls. This would allow me to compare girls post-treatment to their own pre-treatment statistics, which would give a clearer picture than comparing the girls to the rest of the group. I would also…