Barbie's popularity ensures that her effect on the play of children attracts a high degree of scrutiny. The criticisms leveled at her are often based on the assumption that children consider Barbie a role model and will attempt to emulate her.
- One of the most common criticisms of Barbie is that she promotes an unrealistic idea of body image for a young woman, leading to a risk that girls who attempt to emulate her will become anorexic. A standard Barbie doll is 11.5 inches tall, giving a height of 5 feet 9 inches at 1/6 scale. Barbie's vital statistics have been estimated at 36 inches (chest), 18 inches (waist) and 33 inches (hips). At 5'9" tall and weighing 110 lbs, Barbie would have a BMI of 16.24 and fit the weight criteria for anorexia. According to research by the University Central Hospital in Helsinki, Finland, she would lack the 17 to 22 percent body fat required for a woman to menstruate. In 1963, the outfit "Barbie Baby-Sits" came with a book entitled How to Lose Weight which advised: "Don't eat!." The same book was included in another ensemble called "Slumber Party" in 1965 along with a pink bathroom scale permanently set at 110 lbs., which would be around 35 lbs. underweight for a woman 5 feet 9 inches tall. Mattel has said that the waist of the Barbie doll was made small because the waistbands of her clothes, along with their seams, snaps, and zippers, added bulk to her figure.
- In 1997, Barbie's body mold was redesigned and given a wider waist, with Mattel saying that this would make the doll better suited to contemporary fashion designs. However, the Silkstone Barbie line introduced in 2000 as well as the Model Muse Barbie body mold introduced in 2004 feature Barbie dolls with dimensions similar to those Barbies manufactured prior to 1997. The Model Muse Barbie has a very small waist, defined abs, a collarbone, defined ankles and even cleavage. The fashion of Barbies created before 1997 will fit both Silkstone dolls and the Model Muse body sculpt, but fashions created after 1997 do not fit either of these Barbie types.
- "Colored Francie" made her debut in 1967, and she is sometimes described as the first African American Barbie doll. However, she was produced using the existing head molds for the white Francie doll and lacked African characteristics other than a dark skin. The first African American doll in the Barbie range is usually regarded as Christie, who made her debut in 1968. Black Barbie was launched in 1980 but still had white features. In September 2009, Mattel introduced the So In Style range, which was intended to create a more realistic depiction of black people than previous dolls.
- In July 1992, Mattel released Teen Talk Barbie, which spoke a number of phrases including "Will we ever have enough clothes?", "I love shopping!", and "Wanna have a pizza party?" Each doll was programmed to say four out of 270 possible phrases, so that no two dolls were likely to be the same. One of these 270 phrases was "Math class is tough!" (often misquoted as "Math is hard"). Although only about 1.5% of all the dolls sold said the phrase, it led to criticism from the American Association of University Women. In October 1992 Mattel announced that Teen Talk Barbie would no longer say the phrase, and offered a swap to anyone who owned a doll that did.
- In 1997, Mattel joined forces with Nabisco to launch a cross-promotion of Barbie with Oreo cookies. Oreo Fun Barbie was marketed as someone with whom little girls could play after class and share "America's favorite cookie." As had become the custom, Mattel manufactured both a white and a black version. Critics argued that in the African American community, Oreo is a derogatory term meaning that the person is "black on the outside and white on the inside," like the chocolate sandwich cookie itself. The doll was unsuccessful and Mattel recalled the unsold stock, making it sought after by collectors.
- In May 1997, Mattel introduced Share a Smile Becky, a doll in a pink wheelchair. Kjersti Johnson, a 17-year-old high school student in Tacoma, Washington with cerebral palsy, pointed out that the doll would not fit into the elevator of Barbie's $100 Dream House. Mattel announced that it would redesign the house in the future to accommodate the doll.
- In March 2000 stories appeared in the media claiming that the hard vinyl used in vintage Barbie dolls could leak toxic chemicals, causing danger to children playing with them. The claim was rejected as false by technical experts. A modern Barbie doll has a body made from ABS plastic, while the head is made from soft PVC.
- In September 2003, the Middle Eastern country of Saudi Arabia outlawed the sale of Barbie dolls, saying that she did not conform to the ideals of Islam. The Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice stated "Jewish Barbie dolls, with their revealing clothes and shameful postures, accessories and tools are a symbol of decadence to the perverted West. Let us beware of her dangers and be careful." In Middle Eastern countries there is an alternative doll called Fulla which is similar to Barbie but is designed to be more acceptable to an Islamic market. Fulla is not made by the Mattel Corporation, and Barbie is still available in other Middle Eastern countries including Egypt. In Iran, Sara and Dara dolls are available as an alternative to Barbie.
- In December 2005, Dr. Agnes Nairn at the University of Bath in England published research suggesting that girls often go through a stage where they hate their Barbie dolls and subject them to a range of punishments, including decapitation and placing the doll in a microwave oven. Dr. Nairn said: "It's as though disavowing Barbie is a rite of passage and a rejection of their past."
- In April 2009, the launch of a Totally Tattoos Barbie with a range of tattoos that could be applied to the doll, including a lower back tattoo, led to controversy. Mattel's promotional material read "Customize the fashions and apply the fun temporary tattoos on you too", but Ed Mayo, chief executive of Consumer Focus, argued that children might want to get tattooed themselves.
- In July 2010, Mattel released "Barbie Video Girl", a Barbie doll with a pinhole video camera in its chest, enabling clips of up to 30 minutes to be recorded, viewed and uploaded to a computer via a USB cable. On November 30, 2010, The FBI issued a warning in a private memo that the doll could be used to produce child pornography, although it stated publicly that there was "no reported evidence that the doll had been used in any way other than intended."
Barbie's waist has been widened in more recent versions of the doll.
Vintage booklet advising on how to lose weight.
Back cover of vintage booklet on How to Lose Weight, stating "Don't Eat!".
Bathroom scale from 1965, permanently set at 110 lbs.
Oreo Fun Barbie from 1997 became controversial after a negative interpretation of the doll's name.
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