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Could Barbies Limit Girls’ Career Goals?

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CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new study shows that playing with Barbie dolls could limit the career aspirations for young girls.

Aurora Sherman, an associate professor of psychology in the School of Psychological Science at Oregon State University teamed up with Eileen Zurbriggen of the Univeristy of California, Santa Cruz to see what kinds of unexpected messages girls might receive from the kinds of toys they play with.

Millions of girls play with the Barbie doll, which has been around since 1959. And Sherman says playing with the doll has an effect on a girl’s sense in the world.

The study concludes that girls who play with the doll believe that boys have more career options than they do.

Thirty-seven 4-7 year-old girls were randomly assigned to play with Mrs. Potato Head, Fashion Barbie, or Doctor Barbie.

Sherman says all of the girls had the same amount of experience with the Barbie doll.

“They started out the study not being different in any significant way,” she said. “But their answers after playing with the toys were different.”

Sherman says the study used Mrs. Potato Head as a neutral comparison, a toy she says is not sexualized like the Barbie doll is.

After the girls played with their toys, they were each shown images of various job sites and asked if boys, girls, or both boys and girls could pursue different careers. Examples of job choices included pilots, construction workers, nurses, and police officers.

“The girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head did not distinguish the number of jobs they thought they could do and they thought a boy could do,” Sherman said.

The girls who played with the Barbie dolls had a different response.

“They told us boys could do more jobs in the future than they themselves could do,” Sherman said.

Sherman says playing with one toy is not likely to change a child’s career aspirations because childhood development is complex. But she says it might not be the best idea if the Barbie doll is the only toy a girl is playing with.

“One toy is not going to be enough to determine everything,” she said. “But if parents are interested in these findings, they might take away from this idea that a little more diversity in the toy box could be something to think about.”

Sherman says the study works with the sexualization theory – that when women receive cues about their physical body, their level of self-worth changes.

She recommends that parents play with their kids. And to talk with them about Barbie’s figure. She says parents could say something similar to: “I just want you to know that Barbie’s body is not possible for human beings. I always want you to remember that. That your body will never look like Barbie’s body and that’s totally okay.”

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