Barbie isn’t typically part of the recipe for creating a healthy self-image. Her proportions are unrealistic and her coloring emphasizes that old idea praising blonde hair, blue eyes, and fair skin above all else. Still, Barbies might not be all bad.
To their credit, Barbies allow girls to envision themselves in a multitude of careers. They have worked in almost every industry and in almost every role. They allow girls to believe that they can be attractive and chase their dreams. However, if you give a girl a baby doll, you have given her only one aspiration: to become a mom.
While baby dolls might not be part of a feminist agenda, Barbies might very well have a place in last wave of feminism. As Sheryl Sandberg explains, the last wave of feminism was great at inspiring women to achieve more in their careers and education. However, it only added these obligations to the many responsibilities women already had as loving wives, mothers, and daughters. Even if women were as educated and passionate about their careers as their husbands, society still expected them to be the primary homemakers and caretakers. This created impossible standards for women much like the beautifully fit and career savvy Barbie.
That said, although Barbies encourage girls to pursue more careers, a woman guided by Barbie ideals and second wave feminism is likely to fall short of expectations. As a response to this, Sheryl Sandberg and other leaders have offered a third wave of feminism, which encourages women to lean into their dreams while simultaneously leaning more on their partners. It demands an end to gender roles and calls for shared responsibility for both housemaking and profit-making. However, it would be difficult to develop these more reasonable expectations without learning them as a child.
No combination of career savvy Barbie Dolls can teach a child that lesson. Let your child play with all sorts of toys regardless of what gender its marketing is targeting. Examples of items challenging gender norms while still being “girly” include GoldieBlox and Fancy Nancy. Unfortunately, I am not aware of equivalent items with a “boyish” flare.