Aurora Sherman of Oregon State University and Eileen Zurbriggen of the University of California, Santa Cruz, conducted one of the first experiments on how playing with fashion dolls influences girls' perceptions about their future occupational options.
The psychologists described the findings as "sobering."
Thirty-seven girls from the Pacific Northwest, ages 4 to 7 were randomly assigned to play for 5 minutes with either a sexualized Doctor Barbie or Fashion Barbie doll, or with more a more neutral Mrs. Potato Head doll. The girls were then shown photographs of 10 occupations and asked how many they themselves or boys could do in the future.
The study, published in the journal Sex Roles, found the girls who played with a Barbie doll -- irrespective of whether it was dressed as a fashion model or a doctor -- saw themselves in fewer occupations than are possible for boys. However, the girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head reported nearly as many career options available for themselves as for boys, the researchers said.
The two Barbie dolls were identical except for clothing, with unrealistic bodies, extremely youthful and attractive faces, and long full hair, the researchers said.
The researchers said the doll itself trumps the role or career aspirations suggested by its costume. This could be because of the well-defined Barbie perception that most young girls have about the doll's appearance and her sexually mature body shape, Sherman and Zurbriggen said.