Christmas is coming soon, and I have nephews and a niece. As a result, people have been pitching all manner of toys to me as gift ideas*. When people hear that I have a niece, they invariably suggest either stuffed animals or Barbie Dolls. Now, I have no interest in giving her a Barbie Doll - she has plenty of relatives who will give her soon-to-be-forgotten plastic toys and I see no reason to be one of the crowd. But what does interest me is the reaction that many of my friends have when they hear that someone recommended that I give my niece a Barbie Doll.
"Barbie damages the psyches of little girls!" they'll usually exclaim, "These people want you to start feeding your niece an unrealistic idea of what a woman should look like that will cause her to have body perception issues for the rest of her life!"
In truth, I had thought this myself for a large portion of my adult life. It seems intuitively correct - if a young girl's first image of what a woman should look like comes from a doll that is little more than a grotesque caricature of a human, then this image would likely get burned into her memory. In of itself the doll might not be that bad, but within the context of a mass media that routinely broadcasts unrealistic images of women, the doll becomes a gateway into a world of poor body image and hypersexualization.
But, of course, a child has another context in which they see the Barbie Doll - as a toy. The average little girl may have a Barbie, but they also have many other toys, many of which are themselves also grotesque caricatures of the human form - really, have you ever actually looked at a Raggedy Ann doll? This context seems to be almost universally ignored when people speak about the alleged evils of Barbie, and yet it is the primary context through which a child will interact with the doll.
I hadn't considered the possibility that Barbie was perhaps not harmful until I read an article about seven years back in which the author pointed out that, like so many pieces of "common sense", nobody had ever bothered to actually look for evidence supporting the claim that Barbie leads to poor body image. It was something that was asserted (primarily beginning in the 60s and 70s), and people either accepted or denied the claim based primarily on their social and/or political leanings, but nobody ever actually bothered to test the hypothesis. Instead, both those who accepted and those who denied the claim built up edifices of rationalization to support their claim, never bothering to actually do a reality check.
In other words, it's possible that Barbie is harmful, and it's also entirely possible that Barbie is not harmful. Nobody actually knows, but everybody thinks that they do. Even if the plastic bubble-head is harmful, it seems pretty damn reasonable to point out that it is likely harmful as a very small part of the cultural context in which girls grow and women live, and there are many bigger and more important targets than she-of-the-plastic-joints.
But try saying that to many of the people that I know.
I have found that to tell someone who believes Barbie to be harmful that there simply isn't any evidence to support that belief is an invitation to be assaulted by a barrage of rationalization, vague anecdotes, and just-so stories about the evils of the injection-molded little miss. Sometimes they'll direct me to an essay on the subject, but looking for evidence within the essay usually yileds only more of the same rationalization, vague anecdotes, and just-so stories. And yet, the only actual study that I can find that even discusses how girls view Barbie Dolls suggests that girls do not view her as a model of what they should look like.**
So, where does that leave Barbie? Well, I won't buy Barbie toys, but because I don't want to give my niece yet another thing that will simply end up forgotten in a landfill, not because I think that I am doing her emotional damage. If you are serious about helping girls and women improve their self-image and make themselves better people, then focus on the bigger issues: sexism in the workplace, the lack of strong female role-models in the media (the glut of negative role models), and the disturbingly high rates of sexual assault. Tackling these things will do far more good than demonizing a plastic airhead.
* with the help of my girlfriend, I went a very simple route - books, science kits, and indie puzzle games help to grow their brains and contribute little to landfills and overall consumerism, and as such I am I favor of them)
** By contrast, I have found that telling people who think that Barbie is not harmful that there is no evidence to support their position usually results in them shrugging their shoulders and ignoring me for the next hour or so.