IN one corner, there is wholesome British girl-next-door Sindy – in the other, her bigger-busted, impossibly tiny-waisted American rival, Barbie.
After years of dwindling popularity, Sindy's manufacturer is said to be planning yet another re-incarnation to celebrate the fashion doll's 50th birthday and has signalled a return to her original rounder-faced image. "Sindy is the girl-next-door, your friend ... she's been a comfort blanket to little girls," says Jerry Reynolds, of Pedigree Toys. The move has renewed the long-running debate about the sexualisation of children and the influence of dolls on body image.
Having been introduced into the world of Sindy at the age of four, I have to admit I'm already biased against her American cousin. I had three Sindy dolls and one detested Barbie, kept only as a useful decoy for kidnappings by my brother's Action Man. I could relate far more to Sindy's big head and plain clothes than a tanned American blonde. I suspect it was more to do with growing up in rainy Glasgow and not on a Californian beach than a deliberate choice of role model.
It seems I'm not alone in my anti-Barbie tendencies. Back in 1989, the Barbie Liberation Organisation used sabotage to highlight the issue of gender stereotyping, reportedly swapping the voice boxes of Teen Talk Barbies with those of a Talking Duke GI Joe action figure on shop shelves. The result? Lots of publicity and some no doubt mightily confused kids as their blonde fashion doll growled: "Vengeance is mine," while the supposedly tough-talking GI Joe squeaked: "I love shopping."
On a more serious note, Barbie has been accused of exerting a negative influence on young children's body image. In 2006, a study concluded the tiny-waisted dolls prompted girls to want to be unrealistically thin when they grew up. Sindy's later more svelte incarnations – introduced to help boost flagging sales and cited by some as the genesis of her downfall – have also been criticised as helping to reinforce societal pressures to be thin. Somewhat bizarrely, a study by academics at Bath University also concluded that girls were maiming, burning and microwaving their Barbie dolls as a symbol of rejection of consumerist society.
Clearly, a lot of research time and money is being invested in plastic dolls, which are inevitably competing with numerous other influences which fill up a child's day – television, computers, books and even, gasp, real human beings. And let's face it, it seems few kiddies' favourites escape some sort of criticism in these days of paranoid parenting. On the other side of the size debate, those "obese" Teletubbies came in for stick for failing to encourage healthy eating in young viewers – prompting one psychiatrist to sensibly point out that what actually affects the way young children see their bodies most is the attitude of their parents.
It's not like Barbie hasn't made an effort. Since 1959 when she debuted as a teenage fashion model, she has had more than 130 "careers", according to the blurb – including surgeon, palaeontologist and Arctic rescuer – though it's a bit unfortunate that Presidential Barbie's smart suit was in her usual "signature pink" colour. And despite her many worthy incarnations, the best-selling model of all time is the 1992 Totally Hair Barbie, featuring lustrous flowing locks "from the top of her head to her toes".
The thorny question remains: would a more realistic, plain doll actually be popular? Remember poor Hamble, long acknowledged as the ugliest of the toy posse on BBC's Play School during the 1970s and 1980s. She was always in the shadow of rosy-cheeked rag doll Jemima and universally loathed by under-fives up and down the country.
Having a more wholesome Sindy available on toy store shelves would be a positive move to improve choice for parents. But there is also far more to shaping a child's view of the world than a few years of playing with a realistic-looking Sindy or an ultra-glamorous Barbie. As one PR at former Sindy manufacturer Hasbro once said: "An 11-and-a-half inch piece of plastic is not responsible for the ills of today's society."
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