Bodies and (Barbie) Dolls

One of my earliest memories of American Girl dolls and the American Girl company was that I wasn’t able to find a character that looked like me. The original characters like Felicity and Samantha had interesting personalities and fascinating time periods, but I was distinctly aware that getting the Samantha doll just wouldn’t be the same for me as it would for another girl who looked even vaguely like her (i.e. brunette and white). Since then, American Girl has added a customized doll (the “Truly Me” collection) that you can change by four dimensions: eye color, hair color, hair type and skin color. The idea that girls want dolls that look like them is not unique to American Girl I think, but only very recently have I noticed a ‘movement’ of sorts of companies offering more diverse dolls. In particular, Mattel has just introduced a new line of diverse dolls by body size – they now offer ‘curvy’ and ‘petite’ dolls. This was surprising to me for a couple reasons – Kelly Hager in the Keywords Essay on ‘Body’ articulated this well  – “Another body often under- or misrepresented in children’s literature is the fat body.” (20). She quotes Beth Younger (2003) who wrote about the “…difficulty many Young Adult fiction authors have resisting the contemporary hyper-thin European ideal of beauty” (20). In lecture and discussion I think we have touched on the subject of ethnic and racial representation and how that may affect children, but I had honestly never thought about how children with diverse body types may feel about their representation in children’s literature and dolls. The “unacknowledged weightism” (20) in children’s literature that we’ve read is obvious now looking back, but it was just a sort of assumed ‘norm’ as I was reading it. The American Girls series does not explicitly describe Kaya’s body type or Josefina’s or Kirsten’s but they do illustrate the covers (as most children’s books do I think), which means that there was a deliberate decision on the part of the illustrator and publisher to create a cover with girls who are thin. I glanced through the American Girl covers and while they are beautifully illustrated, there really is no diversity in body type in any of the drawn characters. If one point of dolls (or the characters they represent) is to mimic some kind of reality for the girl who owns it, it’s hard to understand why there isn’t more diversity in bodies (and ethnicities) on the market.

6 thoughts on “Bodies and (Barbie) Dolls”

  1. I think this is a really interesting concept to think about. When I think how I viewed dolls when I was younger, I viewed your classic “doll” as younger than myself and I was always the caretaker. However, I viewed dolls such as Barbies and Bratz very differently. Dolls like those I used to look up to and idolize. I always interpreted them as being older than me. I think it is an interesting concept to think of what category American Girl dolls fall into. Personally, I never aspired to be just like my American Girl doll. I feel like my American Girl doll never made me feel bad about myself because I think I did categorize the doll as younger than me, or as an equal. I wonder how many children notice the dimensions of the American Girl dolls and aspire to be like them. It would be interesting to see how the public would respond if the American Girl company decided to make the dolls in different figures.

  2. I have to agree with your observation of lacking body diversity within the American Girl Company’s dolls. However, unlike that of Barbie dolls I believe that the American Girl Company’s focus of diversity is not focused on the body shape of the dolls, rather on their specific use of clothing and accessories. In recent years, I have noticed the company’s expansion of customizable options for the dolls including stick-on braces, insulin pumps for diabetic dolls, as well as glasses just to name a few. However I would have to say that in order to promote all aspects of a girl’s diversity, the American Girl Company would do well to focus on girl’s specific cultural practices as well as body types.

  3. You bring up a fascinating point as to why the American Girl Company does not have covers demonstrating different dolls’ body sizes. Another interesting point is that even if they do make different doll body types, what races will they choose to portray those particular body types? Will African Americans have the more “plump” bodies? Then, will culture misappropriation be a problem?

  4. What I am curious to know is whether girls who are of a doll playing age notice the proportions of the doll’s body. I absolutely remember being very aware of race, hair color, and even eye color in my American Girl dolls however I really never thought very much about their bodies. I suppose I never had many insecurities about my body until I reached about middle school age. This is not to say that other girls do not have these experiences at a much earlier age than I did, but do you think there is a certain age where girls begin to compare their bodies to others or is it something instilled from very early on?

  5. My two cents on this topic may create controversy. I appreciate the variety of Barbie dolls Mattel has now produced to help demonstrate that beauty ‘comes in all forms.’ However, this doesn’t get to the root cause. Ultimately, beauty must come from within. One can be told he or she is beautiful but if the individual doesn’t feel beautiful than the compliment will hold no weight. Furthermore, while the United States is undergoing a major health epidemic of obesity, I see the fuller doll figure as promotion of ‘it’s okay to be unhealthy.’ While the creation is a step in the right direction, I have mixed feelings on it. Why do we have this urge to have a doll look like ourselves in the first place?

  6. You bring up a very interesting point about body type which we really have not talked about at all in lecture or discussion. Despite all of the other features that the American Girl Doll Company has a variety in, they have no variety in the body shape and size of the dolls. What type of message does this send to girls? I would hope in the future that American Girl will touch upon this issue because along with ethnicities, all body types should be represented.

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