More than six decades after Mattel first began manufacturing its signature line of fashion dolls, Barbie still receives regular revamps. Her latest makeover? Another upswing in diversity, as the manufacturer expands the brand’s repertoire of skin tones, hair types, body shapes and disabilities in hopes of better reflecting the children who play with its products.
The newest additions, unveiled on Tuesday, include dolls with bald heads; gold prosthetic limbs; and vitiligo, a condition that makes patches of skin lose color. As advertised on its website, Mattel has now declared Barbie “the most diverse doll line” on the market.
Per the Independent’s Sarah Young, the company’s goal is to “redefine what it means to be a Barbie or look like Barbie.”
When Barbie first hit the scene in 1959, she was sold as either a blonde or a brunette. Manufactured to be impossibly thin and preposterously proportioned, Barbie arguably resembled none of the children who clamored to snatch the dolls from toy store shelves. Scaled up to life size (multiplying each of her measurements by six), the standard Barbie doll would stand at a height of 5-foot-9, weigh about 110 pounds, boast an 18-inch waist and lack the minimum amount of body fat required for a typical woman to menstruate.
For decades, Mattel has been battered with criticism for distorting ideas of beauty. Though its initial response was slow, the company has since attempted to make reparations, debuting wave after wave of diversified dolls with its “Fashionista” line, first released in 2016. According to the company’s website, the line now boasts 176 dolls with nine body types, 35 skin tones and 94 hairstyles. Other recent additions include Barbies wearing hijabs and dolls marketed as hearing impaired. In September, Mattel released a separate line of gender-neutral dolls dubbed “Creatable World.”
To ensure accurate and inclusive representation in its “Fashionista” lineup, Mattel embarked on several collaborations. Last year, when the company showcased its first doll with a prosthetic limb, it consulted Jordan Reeves, a young disability activist born without her left forearm. (This year, Mattel is offering a second doll with a darker skin tone and gold prosthesis.) And for the Barbie with vitiligo, Mattel worked alongside a dermatologist to capture the nuances of the condition.
Other members of the extended Barbie family received updates as well: Kids can now buy a Ken doll who sports silky, shoulder-length hair. He and the Barbie with vitiligo are on sale now, while the dolls with gold prosthetic legs and no hair will go on the market this June.
“I think this is the best thing that could happen for children,” says Stella Pavlides, president and chief executive of the American Vitiligo Research Foundation, to Maria Cramer of the New York Times. “It shows children that if they can make a doll that looks like them, then they’re okay.”
In some respects, however, Mattel still has a long way to go. Barbie dolls’ facial features remain absurdly symmetrical, and their bodies—while slightly more varied—still represent only a fraction of what is seen in real people, as David Hagenbuch, a marketing ethics expert at Messiah College, tells the New York Times. Curvy Barbie, for instance, could fit into a U.S. size 6. And despite being markedly slimmer than the average American woman, she was quickly dubbed “fat” by young girls in Mattel focus groups, reported BBC News’ Claire Bates in 2016.
“If people claim [the dolls are] representing society in every fashion and facet, they’re not,” says Hagenbuch. “None of us are perfectly proportioned or symmetrical like these dolls.”