You've Come a Long Way, Barbie

14, December 2016
Color photo of Barbie and Ken in her Austin-Healy 3000Barbie and Ken take a spin in an Austin-Healy 3000. Image courtesy of the Minnesota History Center.

One of the iconic toys examined in the exhibit TOYS of the '50s, '60s and '70s is Barbie. She first came on the scene in 1959 as a stick-legged, white-skinned, blonde-haired, blue-eyed doll with cherry red lips. Barbie represented the ultimate woman: She had the perfect body; in Ken, the perfect boyfriend; and all of the money, cars, outfits, and houses a girl could dream of. She helped create an image of what a beautiful woman should look like, reinforcing the idea of valuing women based on their appearance.

Color photo of Barbie from 1959.The first Barbie doll was produced in 1959. Image courtesy of Mattel.

But Barbie’s measurements weren’t exactly realistic. A 2011 Huffington Post story calculated that if Barbie were real, she would be 5 feet 9 inches tall; have a 39-inch bust, 18-inch waist, and 33-inch hips; and wear a size 3 shoe. With these proportions, she probably wouldn’t have periods, she'd have to walk on all fours, and she’d fit the clinical profile for anorexia. Since then, Barbie’s producer, Mattel, has rolled out new Barbie dolls with greater variation in body size and more lifelike dimensions all around.

Early Barbie dolls weren't just disproportionate, though. Until the late 1960s, they were also exclusively white. In 1967, Colored Francie appeared as a “modern cousin” of Barbie, but she was merely a darker version of Barbie's white friend Francine. Colored Francie didn't reflect African American facial features because she'd been made using the same mold as the Francine doll. A black version of Barbie didn't exist until 1980, when Black Barbie made her debut while wearing a glittery red dress accented with dangly earrings, a ring, and an Afro. The packaging described her as having a "Gorgeous face & black hair!"

A vertical color photo of Black Barbie from 1980. This Black Barbie from 1980 also came with a hair pick. Image courtesy of Mattel.

Barbie dolls came on the scene at a time when women were feeling increasingly liberated. But despite the dolls' elaborate outfits and fancy packaging, some women may have felt more boxed in by Barbie’s singular portrayal of beauty. Last year saw an injection of diversity with the introduction of the Barbie Fashionista line, which features dolls with eight different skin tones and 14 different facial structures. No longer all blonde hair and blue eyes, the Fashionistas count 22 hairstyles, 23 hair colors, and 18 eye colors among them.

The demographics of the United States have changed dramatically since Barbie was first introduced, and it’s fascinating to see how this change has been reflected in Barbie and her friends over the course of nearly 60 years. Society has become more diverse and more attuned to the differences between realistic images and airbrushed ones. This awareness—even in the appearance of playthings—is fundamental to accepting and embracing the real diversity that’s all around us.

—Anna Edwards, Communications Intern

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