Barbie in China

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Barbie Series: Barbie in China ... a plot?

Does America's iconic Barbie ® unduly influence beauty ideals and self-image in China? After all, the tall, blue-eyed, blond original version of the doll with a more-than-perfect Western body has become far more popular there than any of the Asian-themed versions, an obvious indication of...well, something.

western dolls in china

According to one salesperson interviewed at Mattel's flagship China Barbie store (38,000 square feet in a six story playground intended for "girls of all ages"), the "Caucasian Barbie" sells well, while the Asian versions "just sit on the shelves."

Even though the original Barbie hasn't lived up to her astronomical sales projections made when the store opened in Shanghai in 2009, sales remain brisk. Not so for the Chinese versions first introduced by Mattel into Hong Kong in 1981. A number of official East Asian Barbies have been offered over the years (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Singaporean, Filipino, and just plain "Oriental"), although most are now out of production.

It's not as if Mattel has purposely downplayed the Asian derivatives. The Chinese Barbie shown here is clearly stunning. But while her facial features have been adjusted (wider face and nose, flatter bridge, eye shape slightly uplifted, darker hair), the double eyelids, overly large blue-gray irises, and pale skin are awfully hard to miss (other Asian Barbie versions sport less defined eyelids).

All of the Asian Barbies come clothed in gorgeous but traditional garb making them appear, perhaps, not quite as "hip" or exciting as the American swimsuit version.

But their bodies are identical: tall, long-legged, and impossibly thin. But then, that's Barbie.

chinese doll
Even in the United States, the doll has always been viewed as a fantasy creation and not a real person. She's the original too-beautiful-for-words blue-eyed blond whose physical characteristics can be altered only so much before she's no longer...Barbie.

So to revisit the question we posed at the start, is Barbie, as is sometimes implied, a sinister attempt to reset appearance preferences of young Chinese girls? While playing with the doll must leave behind some subliminal influence, American Barbie's widespread popularity seems more likely to be a reflection of evolving Chinese desires and beauty standards rather than a cause.


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Does Barbie influence plastic surgery preferences in China?