In partnership with the National Down Syndrome Society, Mattel recently released a Barbie doll with Down syndrome. The doll is the newest member of the Barbie Fashionistas line, which aims to reduce the stigma around disabilities and promote inclusion in fashion and beauty.
The significance of the doll goes beyond its release, its website listing highlights the detail and symbolism placed into the outfit. The doll is wearing ankle foot orthoses (AFOs) for walking support that many with Down syndrome require. The blue and yellow color palette and butterfly pattern on the dress both represent Down syndrome awareness. The pink necklace has three arrows to symbolize the third 21st chromosome that people with Down syndrome have.
Barbie also consulted the NDSS alongside medical professionals to create a new face and body for the doll based on the actual build of women with Down syndrome, including a shorter frame and longer torso.
Source: NBC News
The launch was celebrated with a campaign featuring Ellie Goldstein, a British model with Down syndrome.
“Diversity is important to me as people need to see more people like me out there in the world and not be hidden away.” Goldstein said in an interview with The Guardian.
Source: Sky News
In recent years, the toy company has made groundbreaking strides to release more diverse and inclusive dolls, including Barbies with hearing aids, prosthetic limbs, and vitiligo. The releases have been greeted with glowing media reviews from influencers and industry professionals, praising Mattel for destigmatizing and normalizing physical differences.
According to an article from Forbes, consumer searches for representation in toys is on the rise. Now more than ever, children are able to play with toys that look like them and see themselves positively depicted in the mainstream. With more than 175 Barbie and Ken dolls to choose from, it has become much easier to seek out diverse dolls for diverse play.
Source: Good Morning America
Mattel has faced scrutiny in the past for doll releases, such as the controversial 1965 Sleepover Barbie that came with a scale set to 110 pounds and a manual telling young girls, "Don't Eat." Throughout its history, the brand has come under fire for presenting a narrow scope for their vision of womanhood, focusing on Eurocentric beauty standards and dangerous ideals of thinness.
However, the brand was also one of the first to release a Black doll, introducing Christie in 1968. Year after year, Barbies in traditionally male-dominated career paths made their appearance. Many wouldn't consider Barbie to be the best role model for young girls, but as the company has become more progressive, it's clear that the company is working to undo the damage done in years past.
Source: Daily Mail
The effects of Barbie's expansion has the potential to create long-term ripples in our future generation's handling of diversity, equity, inclusion, and access (DEIA) topics. Play is essential for a child's growth and development, according to Our Kids Trove. Children use play as a way to interpret and understand the world around them. The world is a diverse place, and greater access to diverse toys can actually help children become more empathetic and inclusive toward others.
According to The Kid Collective, "Children are internalizing the world's diversity by playing with inclusive toys like this. Some children may not have friends or know people from diverse backgrounds, and playing with our inclusive and diverse toys will help bridge this gap by providing parents with a tool to talk about diversity positively."
These claims come backed by research from Dr. Sian Jones, who reported, “that after playing with disabled toys for just 3 minutes, children develop a more positive friendship attitude towards their peers with disabilities.”
Barbie took it a step further by collaborating with Cardiff University in a study that proved play with diverse dolls activates regions of children's' brains that aid in the development of empathy and social information processing skills.
According to Global Head of Barbie and Dolls Lisa McKnight, “The findings of this research highlights that playing with dolls, such as Barbie, offers positive benefits in preparing children for the future through nurturing social skills like empathy. As we continue to inspire the limitless potential in every child, we are proud to offer dolls that encourage skills we know are highly valued by parents and are determinants in children’s future emotional, academic, and social success.”
The importance of diverse toys is finally being recognized in the mainstream. Normalizing physical differences of all kinds through play is a gateway for children to understand empathy and compassion for others. Barbie certainly isn't the first brand to have a diverse selection of dolls, but their sheer size and contribution to the toy industry makes their efforts much more notable.
On a personal note, I recently lost my aunt who had Down syndrome. The love and light that she brought into the world is dearly missed every single day. She would have loved this doll, and I would have loved to have a doll of my Auntie Lisa as a little girl. Seeing my aunt as a Barbie doll is still impactful to my 22-year-old self.
DEIA concepts being introduced at a young age through playing with diverse toys could be the secret to making the world a much more accepting place. The Barbie Fashionistas line is an excellent example of how toy brands can contribute to the growing trend of empathy in our youth. Let's keep it up.