One doll is bald. Another has a prosthetic limb. And another doll’s curly dark hair is swept away from her face to show she has vitiligo, a condition that causes patches of skin to lose melanin.
They are among several new Barbie dolls that Mattel is hailing as its “most diverse doll line” that features “more skin tones, hair types and body shapes than ever before.”
The dolls, which were unveiled this week, are the latest attempt by the company to shift away from Barbie’s image as the impossibly thin blonde icon blamed for distorting young children’s idea of beauty, skin tone and body shape.
“I think this is the best thing that could happen for children,” said Stella Pavlides, president and chief executive of the American Vitiligo Research Foundation, an advocacy group based in Clearwater, Fla.
The foundation features stories of children and young men and women with vitiligo, an autoimmune condition with no known cure in which the body attacks the cells that give skin its color. People with the condition have white patches or irregular shapes on the skin that can grow and spread.
For children with the condition, a doll with a face that looks like theirs could help them with the social stigma associated with vitiligo, Pavlides said.
“It shows children that if they can make a doll that looks like them, then they’re OK,” said Pavlides, 74, whose condition was diagnosed when she was 22. She remembers store clerks refusing to take money from her hand.
Once one of the world’s top-selling dolls, Barbie struggled to stay relevant in the early 2000s as other toy companies began manufacturing dolls that showed more diversity and as parents steered their children away from a doll that had become an emblem of unrealistic and even toxic beauty.
In 2010, the company was forced to apologize for a book about Barbie and computers. In the book, “I Can Be a Computer Engineer,” Barbie laughingly explained to her kid sister, Skipper, that she could design only a puppy on her laptop.
“I’ll need Steven’s and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game,” she said.
In 2016, Mattel launched the “Fashionista” Barbie line, which included curvier body types and different skin tones, facial features and hair textures. There are now 176 dolls.
In 2019, Mattel began selling Barbies in wheelchairs and claimed that more than half of all dolls sold by the company came from a diverse set of backgrounds. That year, the top-selling doll almost every week was a curvy black Barbie with an Afro, according to a Mattel spokeswoman.
That same year, Mattel announced that sales of Barbie had reached a five-year high.
“Mattel is really catching up with the times and realizing that more than 50% of children are from backgrounds other than white families,” said Rebecca Hains, a professor of media and communication at Salem State University in Massachusetts and author of “The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years.”
She added, “If they want to keep that market share, they need to do what they’re doing now.”
Lisa McKnight, senior vice president and general manager of Mattel’s Barbie and dolls portfolio, said the doll line “continues to evolve to better reflect the world girls see around them.
“We know our efforts are resonating, with eight consecutive quarters of growth,” she said in a statement.
These advancements in diversity aside, consumers should remember that Barbie dolls still do not truly reflect the population, said David Hagenbuch, a professor of marketing at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa.
The faces are still perfectly symmetrical, the noses pert and the bodies, while not all reed-thin anymore, are still not reflective of real American bodies, he said.
“I like what Mattel is doing,” said Hagenbuch, who teaches ethics in marketing. “It’s a curvy Barbie, but if you were to match her weight with the weight of the average American woman or man, it’s still way off. If people claim they’re representing society in every fashion and facet, they’re not. None of us are perfectly proportioned or symmetrical like these dolls.”