A new study involving an Irish doll maker found that girls who play with ultra-thin dolls end up wanting a thinner body size by the age of as young as five.
The study - conducted by Durham University, Newcastle University and Northumbria University - warned that the dolls, combined with exposure to “thin ideals” in films, on TV, and social media, could lead to body dissatisfaction in young girls.
The researchers said this has been shown to be a factor in the development of eating disorders.
Lead author professor Lynda Boothroyd, from Durham University’s Department of Psychology, said: “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.”
The research, which was published in the academic journal Body Image, had 30 girls aged between five to nine years old play 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. There was no improvement even 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. These dolls are Lottie Dolls, which are made and manufactured in Donegal.
Ian Harkin of the Irish doll manufacturer, said: “It’s time for manufacturers, retailers, toy associations and toy awards to take positive action and stop promoting dolls with unrealistic body shapes in the market. Toy industry professionals have read these reports but continue to ignore the findings.”
In previous research, the psychologists found that the more TV that’s watched the more people prefer thinner female bodies.
Dr Elizabeth Evans, from Newcastle University’s School of Psychology, said: “This study isn’t intended to make parents feel guilty about what’s in their child’s toy box, and it certainly isn’t trying to suggest that ultra-thin dolls are ‘bad’.”
“What our study provides is useful information that parents can take into account when making decisions about toys,” she said.
“Ultra-thin dolls are part of a bigger picture of body pressures that young children experience, and awareness of these pressures is really important to help support and encourage positive body image in our children.”
Similarly, professor Martin Tovee, from Northumbria University’s Department of Psychology, said: “Our study shows how perception of ideal body size and shape is moulded from our earliest years to expect unrealistic ideals.”
“This creates an inevitable body image dissatisfactionwhich is already known to lead towards disordered eating.”