In one of the first experiments to explore the influence of fashion dolls, an Oregon State University researcher has found that girls who play with Barbie dolls see fewer career options for themselves than for boys.
"Playing with Barbie has an effect on girls' ideas about their place in the world," said Aurora M Sherman, an associate professor in the School of Psychological Science at OSU.
"It creates a limit on the sense of what's possible for their future. While it's not a massive effect, it is a measurable and statistically significant effect," said Sherman.
Barbie, introduced in 1959, was the first "fashion doll" with an emphasis on her clothes and appearance.
Past research has found that the way fashion dolls such as Barbie are physically formed and dressed communicates messages of serialisation and objectification to girls.
Sherman's experiment was designed to examine how Barbie might influence girls' career aspirations.
Girls ages 4 to 7 were randomly assigned to play with one of three dolls: a fashion Barbie with dress and high-heeled shoes; a career Barbie with a doctor's coat and stethoscope; or a Mrs Potato Head with accessories such as purses and shoes.
Mrs Potato Head was selected as a neutral doll because the toy is similar in colour and texture, but doesn't have the sexualised characteristics of Barbie.
After a few minutes of play, the girls were asked if they could do any of 10 occupations when they grew up.
They were also asked if boys could do those jobs. Half of the careers were traditionally male-dominated and half were female-dominated.
Girls who played with Barbie thought they could do fewer jobs than boys could do. But girls who played with Mrs Potato Head reported nearly the same number of possible careers for themselves and for boys.
There was no difference in results between girls who played with a Barbie wearing a dress and the career-focused, doctor version of the doll.
Childhood development is complex, and playing with one toy isn't likely to alter a child's career aspirations, Sherman noted.
But toys such as dolls or action figures can influence a child's ideas about their future, she added.
More research is needed to better understand fashion dolls' effect on girls, Sherman said.
It is possible that some girls are more vulnerable to adverse messages from fashion dolls such as Barbie, she said.
The findings were published in the journal Sex Roles.