If the Shoe Fits: After 56 Years, Barbie Can Finally Ditch the Heels

The new line also features dolls with eight different skin tones. But are Mattel’s attempts to diversify too little, too late?
Jun 6, 2015·
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

After years of slumping sales, Barbie is getting an image overhaul—and hoping to land on her feet.

The new line of Fashionistas Barbie dolls, which come in 14 different facial sculpts, are equipped with adjustable ankles that allow them to finally wear flat shoes—a small but significant improvement, considering the iconic Mattel doll has worn heels ever since her debut as a bathing suit model in 1959. She’s since attempted to keep up with the times by embarking on more than 150 careers, including doctor and astronaut, but her footwear has remained staunchly impractical, sending an underlying message to young girls that success often requires a degree of discomfort.

Research shows that heels can be more than just painful—they can also negatively affect women’s health. A new study from Hanseo University in South Korea found that wearing heels for prolonged periods of time—in Barbie’s case, 56 years straight—can lead to an imbalance in the ankle muscles, a key predictor of ankle injury.

The study comes on the heels of a major shoe controversy at the Cannes Film Festival this year when several women were turned away from the red carpet for wearing flats, which were deemed too casual for the upscale event. While the Cannes dress code doesn’t ban flats outright, many cited it as a prime example of a sexist double standard: Men could wear comfortable shoes, but women needed to wear high heels to fit a dress code?

Barbie’s somewhat progressive makeover is a small step for a doll that’s come under fire for its nearly impossible body proportions and lack of diversity in available skin tones. “The Barbie Fashionistas line was designed to represent the world girls see around them,” according to a Mattel press release. It’s likely also a response to a growing backlash over the doll’s unrealistic image.

But it might be too little, too late. While demand for a more natural-looking doll has soared, independent toy makers have sprung up all over the world to create dolls like Nigeria’s Queen of Africa doll and Tasmania’s line of extremely popular Tree Change dolls, essentially refurbished Bratz dolls sans makeup. In America, there’s the average-size Lammily doll, and a family in Florida is crowdsourcing a doll with natural, textured hair.
Meanwhile, global Barbie sales have declined 14 percent in the last quarter compared with a year ago.