Body Image – Toys

There are few media to which youth are exposed to as early as toys, which make up an important part of their media consumption throughout childhood: despite competition from electronics, half of children 14 and younger asked for toys for Christmas in 2011, a number that likely rises for younger children. [1] As a result, the messages about body image that children get from toys may come at a time when they are still forming ideas about gender identity.

Perhaps the most famous example of a media product that creates a distorted body image in women is the Barbie doll. One of the best-selling toys of all time (Jill Barad, president of the doll’s manufacturer Mattel, has estimated that 99 per cent of girls ages 3 to 10 own at least one Barbie doll), [2] Barbie has measurements that, at 1/6 scale, would make her 5’9” tall, with a 36-inch bust and an 18-inch waist. [3] These proportions, along with her stated weight of 110 pounds, make Barbie meet the criteria for anorexia and would likely make her unable to menstruate. [4] It’s no surprise then that studies have shown that exposure to images of Barbie dolls leads to an increase in body dissatisfaction in young girls. [5]

GI Joe action figures

Unlike Barbie and similar girls’ dolls, whose bodies have been fairly consistent over time (in fact, it wasn’t until 1997 that the basic mold for Barbie was modified to give her a smaller bust and a somewhat wider waist), [6] equivalent toys for boys – termed “action figures” due to a belief that boys would not want to play with dolls – have gone from realistic to grossly exaggerated. The first G.I. Joe figure, introduced in 1964, had a waist that would translate to 32-inches at human scale, along with 12-inch biceps. By 1991 the figure’s waist had shrunk by three inches while the biceps had gained four; 1995’s “GI Joe Extreme” figure would have biceps nearly 27 inches around – larger than any bodybuilder ever known. [7] The same pattern is found in figures which represent film characters: the 1978 “Star Wars” figures representing Han Solo and Luke Skywalker have proportions similar to the actors that play them, Harrison Ford and Mark Hammill; the 1998 figures, however, much more closely resemble Arnold Schwartzenegger and other bodybuilders-turned-actors. [8] Recent figures with similar proportions are often based on popular video games, such as those based on the God of War and World of Warcraft series.


[1] Getzler, Wendy Golman. “Toys: More Kids Want ‘Em This Holiday.” Kidscreen, November 22, 2011.
[2] “Barbie boots up.” Time, November 11, 1996.
[3] “Barbie (Doll)”. The New York Times. Retrieved November 23, 2011.
[4] Minna Rintala and Pertti Mustajoki. “Could mannequins menstruate?” BMJ, December 19, 1992, 305(6868), 1575–1576.
[5] Dittmar et al. (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.
[5] “Barbie undergoes plastic surgery.” BBC News. November 18, 1997.
[6] Pope, Harrison G. Jr., et al. Evolving Ideals of Male Body Image as Seen Through Action Toys. International Journal of Eating Disorders 26: 65-72, 1999.
[7] Ibid.