In one of the first experiments to explore the influence of fashion dolls, an Oregon State University researcher has found that girls who play with Barbie dolls see fewer career options for themselves than for boys.
"Playing with Barbie has an effect on girls' ideas about their place in the world," said Aurora M. Sherman, an associate professor in the School of Psychological Science at OSU. "It creates a limit on the sense of what's possible for their future. While it's not a massive effect, it is a measurable and statistically significant effect."
Findings of the research, conducted by Sherman and Eileen L. Zurbriggen of the University of California, Santa Cruz, were published today in the journal "Sex Roles." The study was supported by research and start-up funding from the OSU College of Liberal Arts Dean's office and the School of Psychological Science.
Barbie, introduced in 1959, was the first "fashion doll," with an emphasis on her clothes and appearance. Past research has found that the way fashion dolls such as Barbie are physically formed and dressed communicates messages of sexualization and objectification to girls.
Sherman's experiment was designed to examine how Barbie might influence girls' career aspirations.
Most of the past research on fashion dolls has been observational study of children and the toys in natural settings. In an actual experiment, the researcher controls a variable - in this case, the type of toy each child played with.
Girls ages 4 to 7 were randomly assigned to play with one of three dolls: a fashion Barbie with dress and high-heeled shoes; a career Barbie with a doctor's coat and stethoscope; or a Mrs. Potato Head with accessories such as purses and shoes. Mrs. Potato Head was selected as a neutral doll because the toy is similar in color and texture, but doesn't have the sexualized characteristics of Barbie.
After a few minutes of play, the girls were asked if they could do any of 10 occupations when they grew up. They were also asked if boys could do those jobs. Half of the careers were traditionally male-dominated and half were female-dominated.
Girls who played with Barbie thought they could do fewer jobs than boys could do. But girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head reported nearly the same number of possible careers for themselves and for boys.
There was no difference in results between girls who played with a Barbie wearing a dress and the career-focused, doctor version of the doll.
Childhood development is complex, and playing with one toy isn't likely to alter a child's career aspirations, Sherman noted. But toys such as dolls or action figures can influence a child's ideas about their future, she added.
More research is needed to better understand fashion dolls' effect on girls, Sherman said. It is possible that some girls are more vulnerable to adverse messages from fashion dolls such as Barbie, she pointed out. She is working on two other studies now, including one about girls' perceptions of weight and body image based on doll size and shape.
"For parents, the most important thing is to look at the child's toy box and make sure there is a wide variety of toys to play with," Sherman said.