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In one of the first experiments designed to explore the influence of fashion dolls on children, an Oregon State University researcher has found that girls who play with Barbie dolls see fewer career options for themselves than they do for boys. Aurora M. Sherman, an associate professor in the School of Psychological Science at OSU states, “Playing with Barbie has an effect on girls’ ideas about their place in the world. It creates a limit on the sense of what’s possible for their future. While it’s not a massive effect, it is a measurable and statistically significant effect.” During the study, results of which were published in the journal “Sex Roles,” girls ages 4 to 7 were randomly assigned to play with one of three dolls: a fashion Barbie with dress and high-heeled shoes, a career Barbie with a doctor’s coat and stethoscope, or a Mrs. Potato Head with accessories such as purses and shoes. According to the researchers, they settled on Mrs. Potato Head as a neutral doll, “Because the toy is similar in color and texture, but doesn’t have the sexualized characteristics of Barbie.”

After playtime, the girls were asked about 10 different occupations they might engage in when they grew up and another group of boys were asked the same questions about the same careers. Half of the careers were traditionally male-dominated and half were female-dominated, but across the board, girls who played with Barbie said they felt they could do fewer jobs than boys could do while girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head saw a future full of more possible careers for themselves and for boys.

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Oddly, though much has been made of specialized career Barbies, there was zero difference between girls who played with a Barbie wearing a dress and the career-focused, doctor Barbie. What this study means to you: Well, don’t toss poor Barbie in the trash yet!  Sherman reminds parents that it’s important to keep in mind that, “Childhood development is complex, and playing with one toy isn’t likely to alter a child’s career aspirations. But toys such as dolls or action figures can influence a child’s ideas about their future.” On top of this, more research is needed in order to understand the actual effects of doll fashion on kids and the researchers state that “Some girls are more vulnerable to adverse messages from fashion dolls such as Barbie.” As a parent, the best thing you can do is provide your child, no matter their gender, with a wide variety of toys to play with, see what she or he likes, and have open discussions about how the media, commercialism and stereotypes may influence our choices, but why they shouldn’t fully influence our lives.

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For more information on why (or why not) pink toys and Barbie may be detrimental, check out the following posts:

+ “Boys Can Be Anything”: Effect of Barbie Play on Girls’ Career Cognitions

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