Photographs by Kenji Aoki for TIME
Inside the bigger change in barbie’s 57-year history–and what it says about American adorableness ideals
Part 1 Barbie’s dress won’t fit.
I’m sitting in a ablaze blush allowance at Mattel’s address in El Segundo, Calif., arena with a Barbie that alone 20 bodies in the apple apperceive exists. Her conception has been kept so abstruse that the designers code-named the endeavor Activity Dawn so that alike their spouses wouldn’t be angled off to her existence.
Like every babe who has anytime played with the best accepted toy in history, I draw her clothes off and try to put on a new dress. It’s a dejected mild frock, cinched deeply at the waist with a atramentous ribbon. I try to tug it over her head, but the waistline gets ashore at her shoulders, her albino aigrette peeking out from the neckline. “Try activity anxiety first,” the advance artist suggests, and I do. No good. Her beefy basal gets ashore in the aforementioned spot. Yes, plump. Barbie’s got a new body. Three new bodies, actually: petite, alpine and curvy, in Mattel’s absolutely debated lexicon, and alpha Jan. 28 they will be awash alongside the aboriginal busty, thin-waisted anatomy on Barbie.com. They’ll all be alleged Barbie, but it’s the ample one—with meat on her thighs and a bulging belly and behind—that marks the best amazing change to the best abominable anatomy in the world.
It’s a massive accident for Mattel. Barbie is added than aloof a doll. The cast does $1 billion in sales beyond added than 150 countries annually, and 92% of American girls ages 3 to 12 accept endemic a Barbie, acknowledgment in allotment to her affordable $10 amount tag. She’s been the all-around attribute of a assertive affectionate of American adorableness for generations, with cast accepting that’s up there with Mickey Mouse. M.G. Lord, a Barbie biographer, already said she was advised “to advise women what—for bigger or worse—is accepted of them in society.”
The aggregation hopes that the new dolls, with their assorted anatomy types, forth with the new bark tones and beard textures alien aftermost year, will added carefully reflect their adolescent owners’ world. But the action could additionally backfire—if it’s not too backward altogether. Adding three new anatomy types now is abiding to abrade someone: aloof acrimonious out the acceding petite, alpine and curvy, and advice them into dozens of languages afterwards causing offense, took months. And like me, girls will band ample Barbie and try to put aboriginal Barbie’s clothes on her or bandy the skirts of baby and tall. Not aggregate will Velcro shut. Fits will be thrown, affronted moms will alarm Mattel. The aggregation is ambience up a abstracted advice band aloof to accord with Activity Dawn complaints.
But blockage the advance was not an option. Barbie sales plummeted 20% from 2012 to 2014 and connected to abatement aftermost year. A band of toys advised to advise girls to build, Lego Friends, helped addition Lego aloft Mattel as the bigger toy aggregation in the apple in 2014. Again Hasbro won the Disney Princess business abroad from Mattel, aloof as Elsa from the blur Frozen dethroned Barbie as the best accepted girl’s toy. The estimated acquirement accident to Mattel from Elsa and the added Disney Princesses is $500 million.
Meanwhile, American adorableness ethics accept evolved: the curvaceous bodies of Kim Kardashian West, Beyoncé and Christina Hendricks accept become iconic, while millennial feminist leaders like Lena Dunham are advisedly acknowledgment their un-Barbie-like abstracts onscreen, fueling a movement that promotes anatomy acceptance. In this environment, a new bearing of mothers favor what they apperceive as added allotment toys for their daughters. Elsa ability be aloof as albino and waif-thin as Barbie, but she comes with a backstory of backbone and sisterhood. “The millennial mom is a baby allotment of our customer base,” concedes Evelyn Mazzocco, arch of the Barbie brand, “but we admit she’s the future.”
Part 2 The lath abaft Mazzocco’s board is abounding with words like out of touch, materialistic, not diverse.
She tacked them up anon afterwards she took over Barbie in 2014, allotment of a massive anarchy at Mattel during which admiral and COO Richard Dickson put bodies with artistic backgrounds at the arch of several brands, acquisitive they would appear up with more-innovative solutions to Mattel’s biconcave sales. The aboriginal affair Mazzocco did in that role was analysis Barbie’s haters.
“I capital to admonish myself every time I came to assignment about the absoluteness of what is activity on with the brand,” says Mazzocco, who has three daughters whom she uses as her “own little focus group.” Not that she bare the reminder: she commonly receives abhorrence mail and alike afterlife threats over Barbie’s body.
Barbie has courted altercation back her birth. Her creator, Ruth Handler, based Barbie’s anatomy on a German baby alleged Lilli, a prostitute gag allowance handed out at available parties. Her accommodation were advised accordingly. Back Handler alien Barbie (named afterwards her babe Barbara) in 1959 at the New York Toy Fair, her blowing competitors laughed her out of the room: nobody, they insisted, would appetite to comedy with a baby with breasts.
Still, Barbie’s sales took off, but by 1963 women were agitation the aforementioned anatomy men had ridiculed. That year, a boyhood Barbie was awash with a diet book that recommended simply, “Don’t eat.” Back a Barbie with pre-programmed phrases uttered, “Math chic is tough,” a accumulation alleged the Barbie Liberation Organization said the baby accomplished girls that it was added important to be appealing than smart. They switched out Barbie’s articulation box with that of GI Joe so that the albino cried, “Vengeance is mine,” while the blowing warrior enthused, “Let’s plan our dream wedding.”
Mattel argues that the criticism was misplaced—that Barbie was a baron in 1963, an astronaut in 1965 and a surgeon in 1973 back 9% of all doctors were women. “Our cast represents changeable empowerment,” argues Dickson. “It’s about choices. Barbie had careers at a time back women were belted to actuality aloof housewives. Ironically, our critics are the absolute bodies who should embrace us.”
Mattel has additionally continued claimed that Barbie has no access on girls’ anatomy image, pointing to whisper-thin models and alike moms as the antecedent of the annoyance that too abounding adolescent girls feel about their bodies. A scattering of studies, however, advance that Barbie does accept at atomic some access on what girls see as the ideal body. The best compelling, a 2006 abstraction appear in the account Developmental Psychology, begin that girls apparent to Barbie at a adolescent age bidding greater affair with actuality thin, compared with those apparent to added dolls.
But it was alone back moms started voting with their dollars that Mattel had to amend these criticisms. In the mid-2000s Barbie faced her aboriginal austere antagonism afterwards years of advancement about 90% bazaar allotment of the baby sector. Bratz, the edgy, bug-eyed dolls with their own smartphones and lip gloss, were “eating Barbie’s cafeteria in the older-girl demographic, and Disney Princess was chomping abroad at the younger-girl demographic,” explains Dickson. “Barbie was accepting an appearance crisis.”
At first, this wasn’t a above botheration for Mattel. Dickson was brought in in 2000 to aggrandize the Barbie cast from dolls to apparel, TV shows and gaming. That’s back Barbie got her own alternate website. (She additionally has her own appearance that streams on Netflix.) The Barbie brand’s sales went up alike as the doll’s sales sank. And Mattel as a accomplished prospered. The aggregation was bearing the Disney Princess dolls through a licensing deal, and to action the Bratz problem, it created its own band of cutting-edge dolls, Monster High.
But in 2012, Barbie all-around sales alone 3%. They alone addition 6% in 2013 and 16% in 2014. And the ascendancy of Frozen’s Elsa signals added agitation ahead. Alike two years afterwards the film’s release, the attraction of Frozen hasn’t abated. At a Los Angeles Target, I locate Barbie in the toy aisle, bright bottomward at me from her dream abode (pink convertible awash separately). On the abutting shelf over sits Elsa in a box that invites you to columnist a button to apprehend her sing. I press. As the baby begins to belt out the girl-power canticle “Let It Go,” children—girls and boys—come active from all admonition screaming, dancing, one answer to her mom why they charge yet addition aberration of the Elsa baby in their house. I accomplish a hasty retreat as the mother begins to attending about for the idiot who started arena “Let It Go” in the toy alley during the anniversary season.
Therein lies Barbie’s problem. As abundant as Mattel has approved to bazaar her as a feminist, Barbie’s acclaimed amount has consistently overshadowed her business outfits. At her core, she’s aloof a body, not a character, a canvas aloft which association can activity its anxieties about anatomy image. “Barbie has all this baggage,” says Jess Weiner, a branding able and adviser who has formed with Dove, Disney and Mattel to actualize allotment messaging for girls. “Her cachet as an empowered woman has been lost.”
Part 3 With all that in mind, Kim Culmone, arch of design, airish a claiming to her team:
If you could architecture Barbie today, how would you accomplish her a absorption of the times? Out of that came alteration Barbie’s face to accept beneath architecture and attending younger, giving her articulate ankles so she could abrasion flats as able-bodied as heels, giving her new bark tones to add assortment and again of advance alteration the body. While ample Barbie’s hips, thighs and beasts are visibly beyond than before, from the waist up she is beneath Jessica Rabbit than she is pear-shaped. Mattel refuses to altercate the absolute accommodation of the new dolls or how it came to adjudge on them.
What’s bright in alert to the aggregation altercate the activity is that every footfall was taken on tiptoe. “It’s a claimed affair because about every woman has endemic a Barbie, and every woman has some accord with or assessment about Barbie,” says Culmone. During one meeting, designers, marketers and advisers bedeviled on the shoe problem. There will now be two Barbie shoe sizes, one for ample and alpine and addition for aboriginal and petite. “We can’t characterization them 1, 2, because addition will apprehend into that as adage one’s bigger than the other,” Barbie artist and above Activity Runway adversary Robert Best explains. “Plus, we accept to put the Barbie branding on every distinct object, and the shoes are so tiny.” They assuredly acreage on a B for one shoe admeasurement and Barbie’s face on the other. Moms will accept to addle out which is which back they acquisition a miniature stiletto awash amid their couch cushions.
Indeed, the added bodies are a logistical nightmare. Mattel will advertise the dolls alone on Barbie.com at aboriginal while it negotiates with retailers for added shelf amplitude to accomplish allowance for the new bodies and their clothes alongside the original. There are a acutely absolute cardinal of combinations of beard texture, beard cut and color, anatomy blazon and bark tone. And again there’s the affair of how to amalgamation the dolls. Mothers surveyed in Mattel focus groups bidding affair over giving the new dolls to their babe or a acquaintance of their daughter’s. What if a acute mom reads into the allowance of a ample baby a animadversion on her daughter’s weight? Mattel absitively to advertise the dolls in sets to abstain this problem, but again it had to amount out which dolls to advertise calm to optimize assortment and marketability.
“Yes, some bodies will say we are backward to the game,” says Mazzocco. “But changes at a huge association booty time.”
Part 4 “Hello, I’m a fat person, fat, fat, fat,”
A 6-year-old babe giving articulation for the aboriginal time to ample Barbie sings in a testing allowance at Mattel’s headquarters. Her playmates appear in laughter.
When an developed comes into the allowance and asks her if she sees a aberration amid the dolls’ bodies, she modifies her language. “This one’s a little chubbier,” she says. Girls in added sessions are analogously accurate about labels. “She’s, well, you know,” says an 8-year-old as she uses her easily to action a curvier woman. A shy 7-year-old refuses to say the chat fat to call the doll, instead spelling it out, “F, a, t.”
“I don’t appetite to aching her feelings,” she says a little desperately.
As always, Barbie acts as a Rorschach analysis for the girls who comedy with her—and the adults who appraise her. It’s a attestation to anti-bullying curriculums in elementary schools that none of the girls would use words like fat in advanced of an adult, which Barbie’s analysis aggregation says wasn’t accurate alike three years ago. Still, the girls acquirements the means of political definiteness do not as aboveboard embrace the new dolls as their moms.
“We see it a lot. The developed leaves the allowance and they denude the ample Barbie and chortle a little bit,” says Tania Missad, who runs the analysis aggregation for Mattel’s girls portfolio. “For me, it’s these moments area it aloof absolutely sets in how important it is we do this. Over time I would adulation it if a babe wouldn’t chortle and aloof anticipate of it as addition admirable doll.”
It’s a assurance that alike kids as adolescent as 6 or 7 are already conditioned for a accurate contour in their dolls, and it highlights Mattel’s challenge. Mazzocco reflects on her acquaintance with her daughters (two Barbie fans, one not) back she talks about the assortment acute at the brand. “I do all kinds of things for my kids that they don’t like or understand, from cogent them to do their appointment to bistro their vegetables,” she says. “This is absolute similar. It’s my albatross to accomplish abiding that they accept inclusivity in their lives alike if it doesn’t annals for them.”
Many of the mothers in the four focus groups that Mattel allows me to beam accede with the administration Mattel is taking. And they are, afterwards all, the ones who buy the dolls. Though adolescent moms ability be the best articulate on amusing media back it comes to Barbie’s body, Mattel’s all-encompassing surveys appearance that moms beyond the country affliction about assortment in acceding of blush and body, behindhand of age, chase or socioeconomic position. (The majority of the women in the focus groups I watched were average chic and African American or Hispanic.)
“She’s admirable thick,” offers one mom who says she has a 19-year-old son and two daughters, 3 and 5. “I accept the hardest time award clothes that are adapted and attending good. It’s like if you’re bigger, you accept to abrasion a sack. But she doesn’t attending like that.” A mom antic a boom says that she prefers affairs My Little Pony toys to any array of dolls to abstain the body-image affair altogether, and added mothers nod in agreement. Best say the new Barbie types would accomplish them added acceptable to buy Barbie.
What I Learned Watching Moms and Kids Meet Ample Barbie
Some say Mattel didn’t go far enough. “I ambition that she were curvier,” one woman cutting her compatible from her job at a restaurant complains. “There are shapes that are curvier and still are beautiful. My babe absolutely has curves, and I would appetite to accord her a baby like that. It’s a start, I guess.”
And admitting the girls who anticipation the ample baby looked fat, best of the kids in the groups I beam accept their admired baby or the baby that looks best like them based on hair, not anatomy shape. A curvy, blue-haired baby that abounding girls dub Katy Perry is by far the best popular. But back asked which baby is Barbie, the girls consistently point to a blonde.
The abstraction that all these altered dolls—none of whom attending alike—can all be Barbie is ambagious to moms too. “I brought my babe to a Christmas-tree lighting with Santa and Barbie the added day,” says a mom in one of the focus groups. “If a atramentous woman or a redheaded woman or a beefy woman had apparent up, my babe would accept been like, ‘Where’s Barbie?’” If Mattel takes abroad aggregate that makes Barbie an icon, is she still that icon? Companies assignment decades to actualize the array of cast accepting that Barbie has. Back bodies about the apple abutting their eyes and anticipate of Barbie, they see a specific body. If that anatomy changes, Barbie could lose that status. Worse still, some barter may not like the new version. Too bad for them.
“Ultimately, haters are activity to hate,” Dickson says. “We appetite to accomplish abiding the Barbie lovers adulation us more—and conceivably alteration the bodies who are abrogating to neutral. That would be nice.”
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