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Read about the history and controversy of the famous Barbie dolls.

The Barbie doll was first displayed at the 1959 New York Toy Fair. [©Jupiter Images, 2009]
©Jupiter Images, 2009
The Barbie doll was first displayed at the 1959 New York Toy Fair.

When a toy manufacturer created Barbie dolls, its owners worried that the dolls wouldn't sell, but Barbie became a legendary icon and a focal point of controversy. Raving Toy Maniac reports that Barbie dolls are currently marketed in 150 countries and Barbie is now a $2.5 billion industry. More than one billion Barbie dolls have been sold over the past five decades, according to New York Times Magazine.

Throughout the history of Barbie dolls, they have followed trends in fashion and society, from disco to couture. As such, they are historical milestone markers. Over the years, Barbie has also grown more diverse and career-minded, although the original image of Barbie as a blonde, slender doll scantily clad and decked in fashion accessories has made her the subject of much controversy.

History of Barbie Dolls

A mother named Ruth Handler invented the Barbie doll. Handler came up with the idea after watching her daughter play with paper dolls as if they were adults. According to Mattel's official Barbie site, BarbieCollector.com, the market was already flooded with baby dolls, but Handler thought there might be a market for three-dimensional teenage dolls.

Handler and her husband Elliot already ran the toy company Mattel, but the company didn't sell dolls. However, they decided to make Barbie the company's first. They first displayed Barbie dolls at the 1959 New York Toy Fair. Toy buyers were at first skeptical -- the Barbie dolls were smaller and more sophisticated than the other dolls being sold on toy store shelves. Amazingly, 300,000 Barbie dolls were sold in its first year, according to BarbieMedia.com.

Types of Barbie Dolls

Over the past 50 years, Barbie dolls have undergone changes mirroring those in society. In the beginning, Barbie wore a black-and-white swimsuit and had a swirled ponytail. In the 1960s, as fashion changed, Barbie wore Parisian-style couture fashions. She was given a more realistic face and a twistable waist. Her hair became long and straight, and her makeup also changed.

In the 1970s, different Barbie dolls were introduced, such as one wearing disco gear. Barbie dolls also started to have career-oriented professions. In 1977, Barbie received a smile makeover to make her look friendlier.

Famous designers, such as Vera Wang and Bob Mackie, have designed clothing for Barbie dolls. Barbie recently became interactive -- girls can now go online and create a doll by choosing hair color and facial features. Barbie dolls have also diversified over the years. In 1980, the first Hispanic Barbie doll was created. African American Barbie dolls and others of different ethnic backgrounds have also hit the market.

Controversies Surrounding Barbie Dolls

According to the New York Times, Barbie dolls have drawn scorn from intellectuals, religious officials and cultural critics. While some criticized Barbie's materialism, such as her desire for clothes, Barbie has taken the most heat from feminists. The International Reading Association explains that feminists in the 1970s criticized the dolls for not undertaking more serious professions, such as doctor. Barbie has also been criticized for causing low self-esteem in girls who don't look like her -- which is practically everyone, due to her slight dimensions. Her blue-eyed, blond-haired, slender appearance causes concern for some who consider this a stereotypical view of womanhood.

Some controversy surrounding Barbie stems from her impossible-to-meet dimensions. According to Barbie Media, the doll's official dimensions are a 5-inch bust, a 3¼-inch waist and 5 3/16-inch hips. She weighs 7.25 ounces. If Barbie were a real person, her dimensions would be 36-18-33. She would be 5 feet 9 inches tall and 35 pounds underweight, according to the Guardian. The chance of a real woman having these dimensions is 1 in 100,000. Thus, some critics contend Barbie's unrealistic body image sets up girls for failure and damages their self-esteem. Salon.com claims that Barbie was partially modeled on a German doll called Lilli who was supposed to be a prostitute.

Barbie has also faced religious controversies. In 2002, some stores pulled Barbie's friend Midge off the shelves after the doll was depicted as being pregnant -- even though the doll was married, reports USA Today. In 2008, Barbie's choice of fashion sparked controversy, as some religious groups were angered by the sexually suggestive clothing of Black Canary Barbie, a doll that was supposed to represent a superhero but resembled a dominatrix, according to the UK The Sun. Barbie dolls are banned in Saudi Arabia, where they are considered a threat to morality and a corrupting icon of western society, reports USA Today.

Collecting Barbie Dolls

Collecting Barbie dolls exploded as a hobby in the 1980s, as many of the first girls to own Barbie dolls came of collecting age. So many people today collect Barbies that the manufacturer runs a Web site called BarbieCollector.com. Original Barbie dolls are worth a great deal of money. An original 1959 doll in mint condition sold for $10,000 years ago. Today, this same doll's worth is estimated at $27,500. Many Web sites are devoted to valuing, selling and collecting Barbie dolls.

Barbie Trivia

  • Barbie was named after Handler's daughter, Barbara. Barbie's boyfriend, Ken, was named after Handler's son. Barbie and Ken dolls "broke up" in 2004.
  • Barbie's brother's name is Todd. Her sisters are Skipper, Stacie, Kelly and Tracy.
  • Totally Hair Barbie was the best-selling Barbie doll of all time.
  • Barbie dolls have had 108 careers.
  • Barbie's first career was as a fashion model.
  • Barbie dolls were sold in Europe for the first time in 1961.
  • A Barbie doll is sold every three seconds.
  • Barbie has had 43 pets.
  • Barbie has a full name -- Barbara Millicent Roberts, and she is from Wisconsin.
  • Barbie has never been married.
  • Barbie, the presidential candidate, ran as an independent.
  • Barbie's signature color is pink.

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