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Oh, Barbie: Your changing body still keeps adults talking

Barbie finally ate a sandwich!

After more than half a century of boasting a waistline that in real life would measure about 18 inches, the Barbie doll will now be available in a "curvy" version, Mattel Inc. announced Thursday, along with "tall" and "petite" models as well as "original Barbie."

As she has many times before, Barbie is adapting to changing times. The doll has been a target of controversy from the beginning: I was 6 when Barbie debuted, and I can recall our parish priest earnestly admonishing parents not to buy the sexy dolls for us, pretty much deeming them the spawn of Satan.

My priest was a voice in the wilderness. Barbie is the flagship toy of Mattel's line, and she's far and away the most popular doll in history with more than a billion sold worldwide.

In addition to new body types, Barbie now will be available in an expanded variety of skin tones (seven) and eye colors and 24 new hairstyles in various colors, including blue. The new dolls are available for pre-order online and expected to be on store shelves by March.

The diversity of skin color isn't new; Mattel has given the iconic blue-eyed, blond Barbie black, Hispanic and Asian friends for decades. What is new is the range of body types. It's not her advancing age — Barbie is a baby boomer, born in 1959 — that accounts for those extra ounces of plastic. It's market research.

Barbie creator and Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler originally based the doll's appearance on Bild Lilli, an "adult novelty toy" marketed to men in Germany in the 1950s. As M.J. Lord points out in her fascinating book Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll, the doll's shape also echoes much earlier predecessors like the prehistoric fertility figure called the Venus of Willendorf. The Venus' feet taper into prongs at the ankle, Lord wrote. Sound familiar?

Mattel's marketing department tried to dissuade Handler from selling Barbie, saying moms would never buy the sexy doll for their daughters.

They were wrong. In Barbie's first year, 350,000 of the dolls sold, a phenomenal figure for the times. Little girls loved her endlessly expanding wardrobe, and her adult appearance — very different from the baby dolls that had long dominated the toy market — let kids act out fantasies of their own grownup years.

By the 1970s Barbie was a target of feminists, who attacked her as an unrealistic model of beauty. Mattel countered by giving the doll — whose original occupation was fashion model — a plethora of gender-line-busting careers: astronaut, paleontologist, NASCAR driver.

More recently, Barbie has been targeted for a body type — extremely thin with very large breasts — that rarely occurs naturally and that, some critics have argued, might have a role in fostering body shaming, anorexia and even the rapid increase in the number of breast augmentation surgeries, up 40 percent between 2000 and 2011.

Mattel might not pay a lot of attention to culture critics, but it does listen to sales figures and focus groups.

In October, the company announced that global sales of Barbies were down 14 percent — the third consecutive annual drop. And that was after Mattel finally made Barbies with feet that bend flat. In part, the drop can be attributed to trendier toys — in 2014, Frozen's Queen Elsa knocked Barbie out of the top spot.

But it's also a matter of a new generation of parents with a different perspective on what their kids play with.

In an interview with the Telegraph, Tania Missad, Mattel's director of global brand insights, said, "We were seeing that millennials are driven by social justice and attracted to brands with purpose and values, and they didn't see Barbie in this category."

The toy company's research suggests that millenial moms and dads are more likely than their boomer and Gen X predecessors to see Barbie as a symbol of consumerism and unrealistic expectations of beauty, as well as of the segregation of toys by gender — "girls' toys" and "boys' toys."

Hence the new Barbies. Mattel hasn't gone all in on the realism, though. Despite a body shape more like that of the majority of American women, curvy Barbie still has a thigh gap.

And the high-minded intentions of adults don't always determine toy sales — back in the day, I got my Barbies despite that priest's sermon.

Will the new Barbies help defeat body shaming and inspire more tolerance? Or will they just become another way of bullying the first time some mean girl scornfully tells a playmate, "You can be Fat Barbie"?

Too soon to tell. But the petite and tall Barbies might be a clue to what's really in it for Mattel. Why include them? Has Barbie's height ever really been an issue? ("Why is this doll 11½ inches tall instead of 9? It's an outrage!")

Until now, just like all kinds of other dolls from American Girls to Bratz, Barbies could all wear each other's clothes.

But now, Mom and Dad, get ready to pony up for wardrobes in petite, tall and curvy as well as original Barbie. Diversity is cool, but four times the wardrobe equals "ka-ching!"

Information from Times wires was used in this report. Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

Oh, Barbie: Your changing body still keeps adults talking 01/28/16 [Last modified: Thursday, January 28, 2016 10:13pm]
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