Comment and opinion
Playing with ultra-thin dolls could make girls as young as five want skinnier bodies
(11 March 2021)
Professor Lynda Boothroyd talks about how ultra-thin dolls, one of the most popular toys of all time, pose a potential risk to young girls’ developing body ideals.
Dolls have been a feature of human cultures for millenia, with the oldest known dolls, made of wood, dating back to 2000BC. These days, fashion dolls are popular choices for children’s toys, with Barbie listed as one of the best-selling toys of all time.
However, some of the most popular fashion dolls have impossibly thin bodies, which could never be achieved or maintained in a real-life human being.
Exposure to images of thin women can decrease body satisfaction and increase the belief that thin bodies are “ideal” – known as thin-ideal internalisation. Should we be concerned about the potential effects of ultra-thin dolls on children whose body image is still developing?
In a new study, due to be published in the journal Body Image, my colleagues and I found evidence that ultra-thin dolls, one of the most popular toys of all time, pose a potential risk to young girls’ developing body ideals. On top of this, the apparent effects of ultra-thin dolls don’t seem easily reversed by play with healthy-weight dolls or other toys –- at least in the short time periods we used in our study.
Late childhood and pre-adolescence are key stages for developing awareness of our own and others’ bodies, and during this period, girls begin to demonstrate anti-fat bias, thin-ideal internalisation, and appearance concerns.
Growing up with these influences could have a serious impact on future mental and physical health. Body dissatisfaction and thin-ideal internalisation contribute to the development of eating disorders, depression, and poor exercise and diet.
Studies investigating the effect of playing with ultra-thin dolls on young girls have produced mixed results. Sometimes they showed girls who played with thin dolls desired thinner body shapes after playtime. Other studies showed no such effect on self-esteem, but that playing with the dolls still caused thin-ideal internalisation.
Playing with ultra-thin dolls may also have socio-cultural implications as well as psychological and physical effects. In one study, girls who played with ultra-thin dolls – regardless of the way the doll was dressed – went on to suggest there were fewer future career opportunities for themselves, compared to girls who played with non-human toys and boys.
The dolls study
Identifying the need for further investigation into this topic, we ran two experiments. The first was to determine the effects of playing with ultra-thin dolls compared to realistic childlike dolls like Dora and Lottie. The second was to determine if the effects of playing with ultra-thin dolls could be reversed, through play with realistic childlike dolls or other toys.
Importantly, our studies involved “baseline testing” – we measured children’s body size ideals before as well as after they had played with the dolls. We asked girls to indicate their actual body, their ideal body and their ideal adult body.
In the first experiment, 31 five- to nine-year-old girls played with either ultra-thin or realistic dolls for five minutes. We found the girls with ultra-thin dolls had lower body satisfaction and sigificantly thinner ideal self and ideal adult bodies at the end of the session than at the start. Those with realistic dolls reported higher body satisfaction and no change in their ideal self and ideal adult bodies. This suggests a short period of play with ultra-thin dolls can have an impact on young girl’s body ideals and satisfaction.
Can we reverse the effects?
In our second experiment, we wanted to test if playing with realistic dolls or cars could offset the negative effects caused by playing with ultra-thin dolls.
In this experiment, 46 five- to ten-year-old girls completed two three-minute play sessions. In the first, they all played with the ultra-thin dolls. In the second, they either played with ultra-thin dolls again, with realistic childlike dolls or cars with faces.
The results replicated one of the key findings in the first experiment. The girls’ ideal self appeared to become significantly thinner after the first play session. But in the second play session there was no significant further change in the ideal self, no matter which toys they girls played with.
This suggests that once a shift in preferences towards a skinnier body has been induced, play with realistic dolls or other toys does not “fix” it in the immediate short term.
My colleagues and I theorise this apparent shift in body preferences could work through several psychological mechanisms. One is through internalising the positive messages that ultra-thin dolls create around their body size. Then there are more “simple” visual exposure effects, where our brains adapt to a new “normal” for body size based on visual experience.
Previous research has found both mechanisms can work in tandem, which suggests ultra-thin dolls can change young girls’ body ideals through both the cultural associations and visual exposure effects.
These studies, along with previous research, combine to support the notion that ultra-thin dolls represent a potential risk to girls’ developing body image.
Although dolls are not the only source of body ideals girls are exposed to – TV, films, social media, and their parents and peers are also important – reducing their overall exposure to distorted body ideals may be helpful in promoting more positive body image in the longer term.
Caregivers can support girls’ body image and help them learn to love their bodies by presenting an example of positive body image themselves, but may also wish to consider what toys and media their children are given.
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