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 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 models...today'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).
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: 10.1037/0012-1618.104.22.1683
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 cracked.com on weird, disturbing, and inadvertently perverted toys.