Playing with ultra-thin dolls can negatively affect young girls, new study finds

Researchers found girls as young as 5 viewed their body size differently after playing with ultra-thin dolls

There's long been debate over how much influence toys, particularly dolls, can have on children. As it turns out, playing with dolls can potentially affect a child, but perhaps not in the way most parents would hope.

A new study led by Durham University in the UK shows that ultra-thin dolls may negatively affect body image in girls as young as 5.

Researchers warned that the dolls, combined with exposure to thin “ideals” in films, TV and social media, could also lead to young girls feeling more dissatisfied with their own bodies, and potentially be an early factor in developing an eating disorder.

In the research, 30 girls between the ages of 5 and 9 played with an ultra-thin doll, a realistic childlike doll or a car. Before and after each play session, the girls were asked about how they perceived their own body as well as the ideal body size via an interactive computer test using photos.

They found that girls who played with ultra-thin dolls viewed the ideal body size as smaller and there was no improvement to this even after playing with childlike dolls or cars, showing that the effects could not be immediately counteracted. However, those who played with realistic children’s dolls held a more neutral view in terms of the ideal body size.

"Body dissatisfaction is a huge problem, particularly amongst young girls. It can have serious consequences for girls' wellbeing and lead to eating disorders and depression," said Lynda Boothroyd, lead author of the study from Durham University's department of psychology, in the academic journal Body Image.

"The results from our study indicate that playing with ultra-thin dolls, which are sold in the millions each year, could have a real negative impact on girls' body image. This is on top of all the images of unrealistic body sizes they see on TV, in films and on social media. This is something that needs to be addressed in order to reduce the pressure on girls and women to aspire to a 'thin ideal body'."

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