My niece is almost 3 years old. Her first obsession was Minnie Mouse. Now it's Disney princesses.
"Uncle Nik!" she'll say, running up to me with a smile on her face. "I'm a princess! I'm a princess!"
Her current toybox favorites are eight figurines of Disney princesses, from the classic Cinderella to the cryogenically gifted Elsa of "Frozen" fame. On Christmas Eve, I spent an hour helping my brother assemble a Disney "princess castle" that recognizes the dolls, plays a royal theme when they walk through the door, and includes princess-y trappings like thrones, romantic balconies, and sweeping staircases.
By now, I know my niece really, really likes the idea of being a princess. I don't know what her new obsession will be a year or two from now, but I'm sure about one thing: She doesn't know, or care, about the body types or skin tones of her princess dolls.
She's a kid, and she's enjoying the blissful ignorance that comes with being a kid. She doesn't have to worry about anorexia, racism, discrimination, body acceptance, or any of the other things many adults torture themselves about. Likewise, when I was a kid, I didn't stare wistfully at my Batman and Superman action figures and sulk because I didn't have rippling muscles like they did. They were superheroes. All I cared about was that they fought crime and looked awesome while standing atop buildings at night, looking over Metropolis and Gotham.
Kids and body image are in the news again now that Mattel has unveiled its newest line of Barbie dolls, and as the Daily Mail notes, it's the first time in the doll's 57-year history that designers have given her such a complete makeover. The new line — which will be released in March — includes tall, petite, and curvy versions of America's most iconic doll, which come in a variety of different skin tones and hair styles, USA Today reports. In all, there are 33 different versions of the new Barbie.
Predictably, users have got their thick-rimmed glasses in a twist over on Twitter, the social media platform best known for airing grievances over first-world problems. The outrage can be broken down into three camps: Those who think Mattel has caved to an overzealous, politically correct crowd, those who congratulated the toy company for making dolls that reflect the diversity of American children, and lastly, those who think Mattel hasn't done enough to ensure Barbies reflect the body types and skin tones of the girls who will be playing with them.
"We believe we have a responsibility to girls and parents to reflect a broader view of beauty," said Evelyn Mazzocco, a senior vice president at Mattel.
She should have known no good deed goes unpunished.
Updating America's most popular doll for the 21st century — and the cultural attitudes of modern times — is a laudable move for the toy company, even if it's not entirely motivated by altruism. It is a business, after all, and businesses have to adapt to survive. The reality is that this is no longer the whitebread America of "Leave It To Beaver," and the decision to design new Barbie dolls was undoubtedly precipitated by a good amount of focus-grouping and pie charts showing executives how the doll line could penetrate new markets.
There's also enough evidence to concede that kids can be impacted by "role models" that only come in one size and one skin tone, with dimensions considered perfect by arbitrary Western beauty standards, according to Florence Williams, a visiting scholar at George Washington University's public health school who authored the book "Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History."
"Kids are just bombarded with images that are really just not true to nature," Williams told USA Today. "It can potentially damage your self-esteem or limit your world view."
But that stuff's for the adults to fret about. Parents can feel good about giving their children dolls that reflect their ethnicity or body type, but let's try to remember that kids are blank canvasses — they don't have a lifetime's worth of cultural and societal biases programmed into them, and that's a good thing. As long as ignorance is bliss, let kids be kids and leave them to enjoy their childhoods.