Researchers observed 5- to 9-year-olds playing with dolls of different body types and found girls who played with ultrathin dolls were more likely to want thin bodies, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Body Image.
The ultrathin dolls represent a source of thin ideals, which could potentially lead to long-term body dissatisfaction in young girls, said study author Lynda Boothroyd, professor and director of research at the department of psychology at Durham University in the United Kingdom.
"Body dissatisfaction in childhood can persist into adolescence and later on" and can contribute to weight gain and eating disorders, she said.
Thirty participants were asked about their perceived and ideal body sizes using pictures on a computer before being allowed to play with dolls, either ultrathin or realistically childlike.
After girls played with either the ultrathin or childlike dolls for five minutes, they answered the same body image questions. The children's ideal-self body mass index reduced significantly after playing with ultrathin dolls, but had no significant change if they played with the childlike dolls.
The results of the study weren't surprising to Boothroyd. She said she'd seen other studies about how doll size can alter body ideals
, "though it gave me quite an emotional lurch to see the results on screen the first time." Her study adds to this body of evidence showing young girls are negatively impacted by exposure to toys that depict the female body unrealistically.
For part of the study, some of the subjects were asked to play with a childlike doll or toy cars after having played with an ultrathin doll. The results showed that even playing with a realistic doll later did not counteract the negative change in their ideal body image seen after they played with the ultrathin dolls.
Body image and mental health
Body dissatisfaction can also be a predictor for other negative consequences, said Charlotte Markey, professor of psychology at Rutgers University in New Jersey, who was not involved in the study.
"Body image isn't just a superficial concern, it's associated with people's mental health in general," Markey said.
Some parents are ditching the thin dolls altogether. Markey said when her daughter was younger, she had a "no Barbie rule."
When her daughter would ask about getting a Barbie doll, Markey would explain why she wouldn't be purchasing one. Talking about body image with your children at a young age "can have lasting positive consequences," she said.
Scott Granet, director of The Obsessive Compulsive Disorder-Body Dysmorphic Disorder Clinic of Northern California, did allow his daughter to have Barbie dolls growing up. Granet, who was not involved in the study, said if he had a young daughter today, he would allow her to have thin dolls in moderation.
"I would also want to buy her other dolls, too, that have more realistic bodies to give her a greater sense of what's more normal," Granet said.