Stick-thin dolls make young girls want to be dangerously skinny — even at 5 years-old

DURHAM, United Kingdom — Do “model-thin” children’s dolls lead to dangerously skinny young girls? A new study finds stick-thin dolls, like Barbies and Monster High dolls, can make girls as young as five want to become unhealthily thin.

Researchers in the United Kingdom say playing with the plastic fashion icon and similar toys just once affects body image. This can increase the risk of anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders or mental illnesses. Such toys — combined with “thin ideals” in entertainment and social media — leaves girls feeling inadequate at vulnerable ages, psychologists warn.

“Body dissatisfaction is a huge problem, particularly amongst young girls,” says lead author Professor Lynda Boothroyd of Durham University in a media release. “It can have serious consequences for girls’ wellbeing and lead to eating disorders and depression.”

“The results from our study indicate that playing with ultra-thin dolls, which are sold in the millions each year, could have a real negative impact on girls’ body image. This is on top of all the images of unrealistic body sizes they see on TV, in films and on social media. This is something that needs to be addressed in order to reduce the pressure on girls and women to aspire to a ‘thin ideal body’,” Prof. Boothroyd adds.

Playing with other toys doesn’t undo a doll’s influence

The findings, published in the journal Body Image, are based on interviews with 30 children between five and nine years-old who played in pairs with ultra-thin dolls, a realistic childlike doll, or a car.

Before and after each session, researchers asked the group about their perception of the ideal body size and the ideal adult body size using an interactive computer test. The children had to change a picture of a girl into what they thought they looked like, what they would like to look like, and what they thought a beautiful woman looks like. Playing with skinny dolls immediately reduced their ideal body size, with no improvement when they later switched to other toys.

Realistic dolls, like a Lottie doll, are based on the proportions and features of a typical nine-year-old. These toys do not wear makeup or revealing clothing. The study shows the effects of playing with model-thin dolls is difficult to counteract. The realistic dolls were relatively neutral for influencing girls’ body ideals; with the results resembling the appearance of healthy children.

Entertainment adding to body image issues?

Previously, the same team discovered the more TV people watch, the more they prefer thinner female bodies. Eight in 10 participants had access to ultra-thin dolls at home or with their friends. Almost all also watched Disney or related films, which also tend to portray very thin female characters.

“This study isn’t intended to make parents feel guilty about what’s in their child’s toy box, and it certainly isn’t trying to suggest that ultra-thin dolls are ‘bad’,” says co-author Dr. Elizabeth Evans from Newcastle University.

“What our study provides is useful information that parents can take into account when making decisions about toys. Ultra-thin dolls are part of a bigger picture of body pressures that young children experience, and awareness of these pressures is really important to help support and encourage positive body image in our children.”

The study also adds to growing evidence that dolls are affecting the beauty ideals young girls internalize.

“Our study shows how perception of ideal body size and shape is molded from our earliest years to expect unrealistic ideals,” explains co-author Prof. Martin Tovee from Northumbria University. “This creates an inevitable body image dissatisfaction which is already known to lead towards disordered eating.”

Current widely available dolls tend to have ultra-thin bodies with a projected body mass index between 10 and 16. This falls into the class of underweight. Study authors note they carried out the research independently from doll manufacturers.

An estimated 70 million people worldwide suffer from eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia. Nine in 10 are young females between 12 and 25 years-old.

SWNS writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.