How Barbie Got Her Groove Back or: How Mattel Learned to Love Dolls with Curves

Jessica Richman
Oct 15, 2018 · 4 min read

Did you know that in 1965, Mattel released Slumber Party Barbie which came with a scale permanently set to 110 lbs and a diet guide with one instruction: ‘DON’T EAT!’?

This Barbie was one of the first of many generations of Barbies and other dolls that shaped the way kids (and most often girls) viewed their bodies and in-turn their self-worth. As a child with some additional weight who grew up in Los Angeles surrounded by the image-focused entertainment industry, I knew that I was not a Barbie girl, but I was absolutely living in a Barbie world.

In 2016, Mattel decided to finally create dolls that, in the words of Evelyn Mazzocco, Barbie’s former Senior Vice President and Global Brand Manager, were “a better reflection of what girls see in the world around them.” Mazzocco brilliantly said “We believe we have a responsibility to girls and parents to reflect a broader view of beauty.”

Something amazing happened after Mattel released these new dolls — the number one selling doll in their Fashionistas collection was a curvy redhead with a “Girl Power” t-shirt no less!

Something else happened after the release — Barbie was featured on the cover of TimeMagazine with the headline — “Now can we stop talking about my body?” and the sub-headline — “What Barbie’s new shape says about American Beauty.”

Mattel took a big bet, informed by both qualitative and quantitative feedback that their dolls were out-of-touch with the changing bodies of women throughout the US and abroad. 67% of US women are now above a size 14 (or even 16 according to some estimates) and over one-third of people around the world are overweight or obese. In China — 10.8% of men and 14.9% of women are overweight. In a nation of almost 1.4 billion people — that number is not small. Mattel’s bet clearly paid off and I am guessing is continuing to do so.

There is clearly a market for inclusive toys and by serving this-market, you can not only drive sales but can help positively alter the way generations of kids (and eventually adults) feel about themselves.

According to IndexBox — a marketing and consulting firm, In 2017, approximately 4.8 billion units of dolls and toys were exported worldwide, a 40% increase from the previous year. Total value of these exports were $44 billion. Imagine the global change we could make around the world if we started to create more inclusive toys?

Here are some business ideas to pursue in order help move this market forward:

1) Start a body-inclusive toy company: This is still a burgeoning industry and although incumbents such as Mattel are stepping-up to the plate, there is room for other players.

2) Clothe current and future dolls: Creative entrepreneurs around the world are creating amazing size-inclusive clothing for these dolls. Search for “plus-size Barbie clothes” on Etsy — the results are pretty cool.

3) Create a platform for inclusive toys: How about creating a one-stop-shop where consumers can go to find toys that make their young (and old) giftees feel great about themselves.

In the immortal words of the mysterious voice from Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.” Now let’s start building!

If this resonated with you and is important to you, please consider sharing. If you are interested in continuing this conversation, please feel free to send me an email @thevisiblecollective@gmail.com

Ng, Brady: “Obesity: the big, fat problem with Chinese cities”, The Guardian, 9 January, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/jan/09/obesity-fat-problem-chinese-cities

World — Dolls And Toys — Market Analysis, Forecast, Size, Trends and Insights, IndexBox Marketing and Consulting, 11 October 2018, https://www.indexbox.io/store/world-dolls-and-toys-market-report-analysis-and-forecast-to-2020/

Friedman, Megan, “Barbie Just Got a Major Makeover And Landed The Cover of TIME”, ELLE, 28 Jan 2016, https://www.elle.com/culture/art-design/news/a33593/barbie-fashionista-new-body-types/

De Lacey, Martha, “‘Don’t eat!’: Controversial 1965 Slumber Party Barbie came with scales permanently set to just 110lbs and a diet book telling her not to eat”, Daily Mail, 29 November 2012, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2239931/1965-Slumber-Party-Barbie-came-scales-set-110lbs-diet-book-telling-eat.html

Deborah A. Christel & Susan C. Dunn (2017) Average American women’s clothing size: comparing National Health and Nutritional Examination Surveys (1988–2010) to ASTM International Misses & Women’s Plus Size clothing, International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education, 10:2, 129–136, DOI: 10.1080/17543266.2016.1214291

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