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Why the New 'Body-Diverse' Barbies Miss the Mark Entirely

04/02/2016 15:56 GMT | Updated 03/02/2017 10:12 GMT

Last week, the world exploded with the news that Barbie is now available in a body diverse range. The world's most famous doll is now also available in versions that are curvier, tall, petite and of different skin tones - supposedly more realistic reflections of 'real women.'

Last week, I also visited the Pankhurst Centre in Manchester, the former home of Emmeline Pankhurst who is remembered for rousing thousands into action in fighting for women's right to vote in the United Kingdom in the early 1900s.

In what used to be parlour - where Mrs Pankhurst held the first meetings that would later spawn the Suffrage movement - there is a handmade doll of her, dressed in green, white and purple, the colour of the Suffragettes. My friends and I took several selfies with the doll (of course) - our small, if imaginary, claim to having met a legendary Pankhurst and posed with her.

The week had me thinking hard about dolls, especially what they can mean for children in a culture where playing with Barbies is still the default setting for growing up as a girl. A doll isn't just a doll, or just a plaything. It teaches girls at a very young age that this is what it means to be a girl and what they should aspire towards as a woman - to look, dress and carry yourself in these particular ways.

It also plants the idea very early on that a woman's function in society is mainly to mother, nurture and care for others. While boys play with child-sized tools and vehicles and are encouraged to dream up adventures and action, girls stay put with their dolls. The extent of adventure and action is what new outfit Barbie might wear today, how to style her hair, how to change the way she looks.

And so, this is the crux of the Barbie issue. Sure, the curvy/petite/tall Barbie with a different skin colour may be a good thing for the way the range tries to be inclusive and to celebrate different bodies but the bottom line is still this: for a girl, it's all and only about what you look like.

Yes, some (mostly the manufacturers) may argue that Barbie is about more than just looks. Why else would they have developed a whole range of career-orientated Barbies that are doctors, scientists, even a President of the United States? But this seemed to be more about how her outfits varied than about what she actually did (not to mention the dubiously sexy/sexist workwear these professional Barbies were dressed in).

Making a body-diverse range of dolls may well be marketed as a step in the right direction in the campaign for body-diversity. But apart from the fact that it's comes way too late (it's taken more than five decades for Mattel to diversify the Barbie body), it also entirely misses the mark. That mark being that we should be trying to move away altogether from focusing so much of our - and young girls' - attention on a woman's body. Barbie, no matter how curvy, tall, petite or 'realistic' she's touted as being now, is still just 'body'. She isn't much more than what she looks like.

And isn't that precisely what women have been trying to contest for centuries? Our decades-long fight for equality, for our voices to be heard, for an equal place in the workplace, politics, history and society is precisely about attempting to change the way that women are judged mostly by our looks or by how obediently we conform to feminine beauty ideals.

To celebrate a range of body-diverse dolls hardly seem progressive; they only prove - to ourselves and to the young girls of today - that a woman is still accorded more attention for her body than for any of her other accomplishments.

Did Emmeline Pankhurst and all her Suffragette sisters fight the good fight all those years ago only for their great-great-granddaughters to grow up with the same narrative that they should be glad for not much more than pretty dolls (even if they have slightly thicker waists now)? Are we still aspiring for not much more than getting acknowledgment for what we look like?

If we must play with dolls - and dare I say that many of us, even in our thirties, still (secretly) enjoy playing with a well-made dolly - why are there hardly any dolls that prompt us instead to think, be creative, learn, live, dream beyond our parlours and living rooms?

The Emmeline Pankhurst doll, I think, would make a far more valuable toy for the hundreds of stories that she comes with. This doll wouldn't be just a plaything, a stand-in for a girl to 'mother' in preparation for what is expected of her when she grows up; she could also create conversation, prompt thinking, creativity and inspiration, give children a role model that would incite them into informed, energised action to take them all out of the playroom and into the world.

So would a Frida Kahlo doll; or dolls of Rosa Parks, Virginia Woolf, Helen Keller, Mother Teresa, Gloria Steinem, Anne Frank... (And while we're at it, why should dolls be predominantly only of women anyway? Why not also dolls of Gandhi, Stephen Hawking, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr...?)

When I got home and looked again at my selfie with the Emmeline Pankhurst doll, I noticed that she looked like she was giving me the side eye, a disapproving roll of the eye like she thought it ridiculous that we should be so eager to take pictures of ourselves, posed coquettishly, with our faces at their best angles.

It seemed exactly the response to this doll dilemma I'd be mulling all week.