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What was your favourite childhood toy? A car? A teddy bear? A doll? Many of us have fond memories of playing with dolls: dressing them up, combing their hair or doing some kind of role play with other toys. But new research shows that playing with ultra-thin dolls could make young girls want a thinner body.

The small-scale study, led by our Psychology Department, shows that ultra-thin dolls may negatively affect body image in girls as young as five years old.

Body dissatisfaction

The researchers warn that the dolls, combined with exposure to ‘thin ideals’ in films, on TV and social media, could lead to body dissatisfaction in young girls, which has been shown to be a factor in the development of eating disorders.

In the research, thirty girls aged between 5-9 years old played with an ultra-thin doll, a realistic childlike doll or a car. Before and after each play session, the girls were asked about their perceived own body size and ideal body size via an interactive computer test using pictures.

Playing with the ultra-thin dolls reduced girls’ ideal body size in the immediate aftermath of play. And there was no improvement when they subsequently played with the childlike dolls or cars afterwards, showing that the effects cannot be immediately counteracted with other toys. The realistic children’s dolls were relatively neutral for girls’ body ideals.

Body ideals

The vast majority of the girls who took part in the study had access to ultra-thin dolls at home or with their friends and almost all of them also watched Disney and related films, which also tend to portray very thin female bodies.

In the study, the girls played with the dolls in pairs and before and after their play session, they were asked to change the body size in a picture of a girl to what they thought they looked like themselves, what they would like to look like and what they thought a beautiful woman looks like.

The experimental study contributes to a growing number of studies which show that doll play may affect the beauty ideals that young girls internalise.

Find out more

  • You can read the full research paper here
  • Watch a short video about the study
  • The study was conducted by psychologists from Durham, Newcastle and Northumbria universities
  • Interested in studying psychology? Take a look at our undergraduate and postgraduate opportunities.
  • Current widely available dolls tend to have ultra-thin bodies with a projected body mass index between 10 and 16 which is classed as underweight. Realistic childlike dolls used in the study resembled healthy 7 and 9-year old children. The research was conducted independently from doll manufacturers.

(Image courtesy of Cottonbro from Pexels)