Breaking up with Barbie

imagesFor centuries, dolls have helped children develop their socio-emotional skills by teaching them how to empathize with others. Last year, dolls raked in nearly $2.7 billion in sales, making them one of the toy industry’s biggest items, reports Ms today

“Not all of today’s dolls offer emotionally healthy experiences for children. Increasingly, parents are speaking out against how mainstream toys send children negative messages about such issues as gender, body image and race.

“The last few years have seen several sexy head-to-toe makeovers of popular children’s characters. Dora the Explorer, once hailed by parents everywhere for her stereotype-bashing, was transformed from a cute toddler to a Barbie-in-training. Strawberry Shortcake used to be most recognizable for her frumpy hat and green stockings, but now she sports pink locks and long lashes. Even gender-neutral trolls have been reincarnated as hip and sexy Trollz, rivaling Bratz, the Winx Club and Monster High for the title of “sexiest dolls on the block.” The list of sexualized, feminized toys goes on: Holly Hobby, Legos, My Little Pony, Polly Pocket, Rainbow Bright. Even the Care Bears are now more pretty and feminine than they are fun and fluffy.

“When it comes to their effects on children, particularly young girls, these sexualized makeovers aren’t all fun and games. “When we give a child a doll, what we’re saying to that child is ‘This is what people look like, this is what women look like, this is what you might aspire to,’” says Susan Linn, executive director ofCampaign for a Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC). With dolls getting prettier and skinnier than ever, it comes as no surprise that, by age 3, girls begin to equate thinness with beauty and popularity. By age 5, they express dissatisfaction with their weight, and by age 9 many experience the onset of eating disorders.

“In addition to sending unhealthy messages about body and beauty ideals, today’s mainstream dolls continue to offer a limited range of racial diversity. “Part of what is lacking and is hard for children of color is not seeing themselves [reflected] in toys or in popular culture,” says Linn. Study after study underscores the importance of cultural representation, yet options for parents who want to buy their children black dollsremain sparse. And when mainstream ethnic dolls do exist, they’re often made from the same mold as their mainstream, white counterparts. This move reinforces racist messages that whiteness is the ideal, or that black women are beautiful only insofar as they look like white women.

“The problems don’t stop there. Linn notes that in today’s media-saturated climate, the best-selling dolls are increasingly based upon characters from popular movies and TV shows. From Disney Princesses to Angry Birds, these commercialized toy lines do more than sucker parents into making further purchases—their already-established characters and storylines also impede the emotional and cognitive benefits of imaginative play. “The best toys,” says Linn, “are ones that children can transform into something,” not ones that come with prepackaged plots.”

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