Barbie’s figure ‘gives young girls a desire to have a thinner body’

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Girls as young as five worry about their weight after seeing images of unrealistically slim figures, new research has revealed. In the first study of its kind, researchers used pictures of Barbie dolls to assess the impact of cultural ideals of “thinness” on very young children.

A group of more than 100 girls, aged between five and seven years old, were given books to look at while someone read them a story about shopping and getting ready to go to a birthday party.

Some of the books contained images of Barbie, while the others showed “neutral” pictures which contained no people at all.

Researchers found that girls who were exposed to pictures of the dolls reported lower body esteem and  a greater desire for a thinner body shape.

They concluded that early exposure to the dolls with an unrealistically thin body shape may damage the body image of girls, leading to an increased risk of disordered eating and cycles of weight gain and loss.

The study was carried out by Dr Emma Halliwell of the University of the West of England, along with Dr Helga Dittmar and Suzie Ives at Sussex University.

Halliwell, a lecturer based at the university’s Centre for Appearance Research, said it was clear that the pressures to be thin started at an early age. “We found that when the children were exposed to these images of Barbie, they reported more negative attitudes about their appearance,” she said.

“Quite strikingly, when they were looking at the control images (the neural pictures) there wasn’t a difference between the way they thought they looked and the way they wanted to look.

“But after viewing pictures of Barbie, they wanted to look thinner than they thought they were.”

Previous research has highlighted that it is not just adults who are being influenced by the constant deluge of images of stick-thin models.

A recent study of Scottish children found that around 52% of 15-year-old girls considered themselves to be “too fat” and 29% were actively trying to lose weight.

Levels of reported dieting were lower among boys, but as much as 11% of 11-year-old boys and 9% of 13-year-olds thought they were overweight.

The ideal body shape has over the years become increasingly unrealistic. It has been calculated that if an average woman had the same proportions as a Barbie doll, she would have to grow 17 inches in height and have a body shape which is found in less than one in 100,000 women.

Halliwell said: “The dimensions of our ideals of beauty are changing, so it’s widely documented that models are becoming thinner.

“On average, models are about 20% underweight.

“There has been a change in the images that have been used and perhaps in the targeting of advertising as well, with an increase in teenage magazines and pre-teen magazines.”

The research will be presented this Tuesday at Fit For The Future 2005, a conference which will be held in London on tackling obesity and improving lifestyles for children and young people.

A new initiative aimed at improving healthy eating education in schools was launched last week by NHS Health Scotland. The Growing Through Adolescence resource pack, to be used by teachers, addresses topics including self esteem, body image and dieting.

Monica Merson, health improvement programme manager at NHS Health Scotland, said that one exercise used involves asking pupils to draw their image of a healthy person.

She said: “Ten years ago, the children drew healthy people, with wider shapes. Now the people they are drawing are thinner and thinner and very slim, with almost no curves in the women.

“These are coming from children aged five to seven-years-old and we are increasingly coming across that.”

Merson said that children tended to “soak up” messages from around their environment, and part of the initiative aimed to teach them to become more media literate.

“They are very great consumers of the information that goes on around them, not just in school, but messages from their parents, peers, TV, radio and from advertising generally,” she said.

“This programme is trying to help them to become more able to understand what is real and not real.”

While Halliwell agreed that using health education programmes in schools was one way to counteract the numerous images of thin celebrities, she argued that the media should also be challenged to include more diverse representations of attractiveness.

“Advertisers often argue that thin sells, but we have been looking at how effective adverts are when they have average-size looking models,” she said.

“What we have found is that as long as the models you use are attractive, those adverts appear to be equally attractive. So it goes against the idea that you have to use ultra-thin models.”

By Judith Duffy, Health Correspondent
© Sunday Herald 2005