The Golden Dalek (goldendalek) wrote,
The Golden Dalek

Plastic ideals: toys you shouldn't give your kids

I am a resolute man-child and I still tend to collect toys. I may even assemble said toys into various dramatic tableaux (and perhaps perhaps even do wee voices while I arrange them) often to simulate movie and franchise crossovers that would seriously kick-ass but sadly remain elusive in the real world. In my youth it used to be Transformers and a bunch of Action Men I won in a Beano comic competition. Now my tastes have matured into something slightly more visceral: zombie figurines. The latest decaying addition to my collection is a Hare Krishna Zombie (pictured in the middle below) modelled from a few scenes in George Romero's masterpiece Dawn of the Dead. She (at least I think it's she) even comes with an adorable little tambourine accessory for bludgeoning survivors!

I don't consider my collection of inanimate animated corpses of particularly bad taste although I am sure they are not everyone's cup of bovril. As an aficionado of a lot of weird gory things I am also aware of the full extent that some of these ranges are pushing bad taste. However, no matter how many detached limbs, split torsos or worse these are not products that offend me. At least they are up-front about their subject matter and clearly aimed at a target demographic of shut ins and horror fans, like myself, and often reside at the top shelf of a comic store in packaging marked for 'adults'. If you buy these for a child you are clearly insane in the membrane. I am far more concerned about the ones insidiously aimed at children. Hence my first attempt at science blogging.

There has been much criticism of the western media for its endorsement of body-types that are largely unobtainable by the general population. The visible celebration of ‘ectomorphic’ (thin) and ‘mesomorphic’ (muscular) ideals in men and women, is largely at odds with the average body size of most western populations which is gravitating towards the decidedly ‘endomorphic’ (chunky) end of the spectrum (Spitzer et al., 1999). This is not a healthy scenario and the media is subsequently considered a major contributing factor in the development of body-image disorders such as bulimia, anorexia and muscle dysmoprhia (Pope, Gruber, and Olivardia, 2000). Next time you are opposite a magazine rack take a look at the oiled buffet of humanity on display, like I always do for extended periods of time, and you will see what I mean. Despite the obvious media body-image link the above disorders often have a complex and multi-faceted development meaning we should pay attention when innovative investigators provide new angles of research.

As such I am going to bring to your attention two of the first studies into the relationship between childrens toys and body-image ideals. These investigations into girls dolls (Norton, Olds, Olive and Dank, 1996) and boys figurines (Pope, Olivardia, Gruber and Borowieki, 1999) both had the same overarching research question: given the rise of body-image disorders in western populations, might we find evidence of these distorted ideals in toys aimed at children?

The specific toys in focus were the girl orientated Barbie range (produced by Mattel) for and GI Joe, Action Man (The Hasbro Toy Company), and Star Wars characters (Kenner) for boys. Systematic measurements of these toys were made and subsequently scaled up to the height of an adult average human female, or male, respectively in a process called ‘Allometric Scaling’. These new measurements were then compared with the upper and lower limits expected in normal and disordered populations of adults.

The findings for Barbie are somewhat grim. If she were human she would have a waist only 41 cm (16 inches) across making her figure unobtainable for the vast majority women in non-disordered and disordered populations alike. The estimates placed her figure as achievable by only 1 in 100,000 women. Perhaps the most sinister finding is that if Barbie were a real she would lack the 17 to 22 percent body fat women require to menstruate (Norton et al., 1996).

Anecdotally Barbie’s moral influence over young girls has not always been a wholesome one. In fact the 1963 "Barbie Baby-Sits" outfit came with a book entitled How to Lose Weight which included the sage advice: "Don't eat." (Sink-Eames, 1997). Interestingly, however, soon after the Norton et al. (1996) study Mattel announced they were increasing Barbie’s hip size (pictured). This was allegedly to “better reflect contemporary society and role's Barbie will be more natural looking. "Natural" in this case should be taken with pinch of salt (or salted butter if you know what's good for you). The 2000 onwards comparison to an average woman (pictured) still indicates a large discrepancy. Additionally, the most recent range of 2010 Barbie’s, titled ‘Back to Basics Barbie’ (below) indicates that, while Mattel may have the politically correct multicultural element down, they forgot to include a celebration the respective national dishes.

The boys toys did not fare much better. Firstly, a trend of progressive muscle mass was seen across the toy ranges measured over the last 30 years. For example, the muscle increase in the popular Star Wars characters Luke Skywalker and Han Solo (pictured) suggests they have been bench-pressing banthas. Many of the figures measured displayed muscle mass in excess of 25kg/m² of muscle, which is considered a natural ceiling of muscular development without steroids (Leit, Pope and Gray, 1999). As Pope et al., (1999) point out, if one the most recent G.I. Joe models were human he would have muscles ‘greater than any bodybuilder in history’ (p-68).

Interestingly the only male toy who seems to have missed the muscle-mass memo is the foppish Kenneth Carson, Barbie’s under-the-thumb long-term boyfriend. Perhaps he was too busy feeding her 40 pets (seriously) or helping redecorate her new play mansion (it takes nine hours to put together – or 43 hours if we allometrically scale that to the average amount of time it takes to construct an Ikea flat pack). However, this anomaly is not considered a particularly relevant exception to the muscle trend given Ken’s dire levels of popularity amongst young boys (Pope et al., 1999).

Overall, we must be careful when interpreting causality to these findings. The implication of both papers taken to the extreme could have you worried that letting your child play with Lego will turn them into perpetually happy, dead eyed conformist or worse. However, it should be said that both of the above studies took pains to only measure toys that were considered the standard representation of humanoid prototypes for both genders (Pope, et al., 2000). As such it raises an important question: are these toys actually affecting children’s body image esteem? Unfortunately, there is preliminary evidence to suggest that girls, particularly young girls, do show increased levels of body dissatisfaction after exposure to a Barbie compared to controls (Dittmar, Halliwell, and Ive, 2006). To date no equivalent study has been conducted in boys.

A large criticism of the media is that they forge unrealistic standards which the general population invariably follow. It is therefore an interesting parallel that ‘dolls’, a word derived from the Greek word eiddon meaning ‘idol’, may also promote unhealthy ideals (Norton et al., 1996). The real irony here that many of these toys do not need to be built like miniature Greek Gods in order to be interesting. For example, Luke Skywalker takes his powers from the force – a source of internal – not external strength. Just look at Yoda’s diminutive proportions for proof! As for Barbie: the more outfits and accessories she possess the flatter the dimension of beauty she will promote. I hope you understand why I find her so repulsive: my zombies, a set of fractured mythical creatures, have more sensible body proportions. Altogether, it would therefore be undeniably refreshing to one day see a toy range simply titled ‘Barbie: human’.


Dittmar, H., Halliwell, E., & Ive, S. (2006). Does Barbie make girls want to be thin? The effect of experimental exposure to images of dolls on the body image of 5- to 8-year-old girls. Developmental Psychology, 42 (2), 283-292 DOI: 10.1037/0012-1649.42.2.283

Pope HG Jr, Olivardia R, Gruber A, & Borowiecki J (1999). Evolving ideals of male body image as seen through action toys. The International journal of eating disorders, 26 (1), 65-72 PMID: 10349585

Norton, K., Olds, T., Olive, S., & Dank, S. (1996). Ken and Barbie at life size Sex Roles, 34 (3-4), 287-294 DOI: 10.1007/BF01544300

Pope, H. G., Gruber, A. J., & Olivardia, R. (2000). The Adonis Complex: The Secret Crisis of Male Body Obsession. Free Press: New York.

Pope, H. G., Olivardia, R., Gruber, A. J., & Borowiecki, J (1999). Evolving ideals of the male body as seen through action toys. International Journal of Eating Disorders

Sink-Eames, S. (1997). Barbie Doll Fashion: The Complete History of the Wardrobes of the Barbie Doll, Her Friends and Her Family. Collector Books, U.S.

Spitzer, B. L., Henderson, K. A., & Zivan, M. T. (1999). Gender differences in population versus media body sizes: A comparison over four decades. Sex Roles, 40 (7/8), 545 – 565.

Also if you are interested in looking at more freakish toys check out these three enjoyable articles from on weird, disturbing, and inadvertently perverted toys.

Tags: nerdism, science, toys, weird

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