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Three minutes with Barbie and they wanted to be thinner

Barbies and the Tracy Turnblad doll from "Hairspray: The Musical." A  new study indicates that girls who played with a full-figured doll were more satisfied with their own bodies afterward.
Barbies and the Tracy Turnblad doll from "Hairspray: The Musical." A new study indicates that girls who played with a full-figured doll were more satisfied with their own bodies afterward.Read moreHandout

Just three minutes of play with a traditional Barbie doll — the kind with the impossibly skinny waist and curvy bosom — made girls as young as 6 more critical of their own bodies,  a new study has found.  Meanwhile, girls who played with a full-figured doll modeled after the Tracy Turnblad character fromHairspray: The Musical were more satisfied with their own bodies afterward.

How girls feel about their bodies is important, the study said, because body dissatisfaction — a desire to be thinner — is associated with strict dieting, which is a "precursor" to eating disorders.

The study was published in the October issue of the journal Body Image.  One of the authors is Kathleen Keller,  a nutritionist at Pennsylvania State University who studies eating-related behaviors in children.   She worked with Rebecca Jellinek, then a student at a high school in Bellmore, N.Y., and Taryn Myers at Virginia Wesleyan College.

While stick-thin models and Barbie herself have long been criticized for presenting young women with out-of-reach ideals, the study said it was unusual to use real dolls and test whether their clothing affected the girls' response.  The new team found that it did not matter whether the dolls were dressed in street clothes or swimsuits.

Keller said it was surprising that such a short exposure made a difference.  "Afterward, they showed such an immediate response," she said. "They wanted to be thinner if they played with Barbie. ... If they played with heavier dolls, that sort of suppressed their desire to be a thinner body weight."

The study did not measure whether that response was fleeting or lasting.

Two versions of the study recruited 224 girls  aged 6 to 8 from a pediatric health center on Long Island and two Long Island libraries, all in predominantly white and affluent areas.   The second version used less recognizable dolls, a tall thin one called Stardoll and a heavy one modeled after the Mimi Bobeck character from The Drew Carey Show.   Before and after playing with the dolls,  the girls were asked questions about how they felt about their bodies.

Keller said that, two years ago, Jellinek had a choice between dolls that were "comically obese" and those that were too thin.  There were no dolls that looked like people at a healthy weight.  "She just couldn't find dolls that were appropriate," she said.

Barbie's dimensions have been a target of criticism for years. The paper notes that a real-woman version of Barbie would be 5-foot-9 with an 18-inch waist and a 36-inch bust.  One study found that only 1 in 100,000 women have such proportions.  Another concluded that "if she were a real woman, her weight would be so low that she would likely be unable to menstruate."

This year, Barbie's maker, Mattel, announced that it was adding a variety of body types — tall, curvy, and petite — to its Fashionistas line.  "I think the industry has responded," Keller said.

The study raises an interesting question.  Might playing with obese dolls promote obesity?  One study found that girls who played with full-figured dolls ate more afterwards than those who played with Barbies. The authors point out that playing with heftier dolls might help girls develop a healthier relationship between their actual and ideal body size.  After all, the average American woman is a size 14.  On the flip side, exposure to full-figure dolls could promote larger body types.

"I think that we just don't know because it hasn't really been tested," Keller said.