The typical Barbie is no longer the generic thin, white blonde woman — but instead has expanded to include dolls of different skin tones, sizes and even disabilities.
Mattel is releasing a new series of dolls this June, which includes the first Barbie with behind-the-ear hearing aids, a Barbie with a prosthetic leg, as well as a Ken doll with vitiligo — a skin condition defined by the loss of pigment cells.
The new series is part of the company’s ongoing efforts to introduce more diversity and inclusion throughout its toys. This also marks Mattel’s first foray into developing Barbies with certain health conditions or disabilities, reflecting the greater push in recent years to tackle ableism.
“When you have a popular doll like Barbie, who’s an icon as far as dolls go, wearing bright pink hearing aids – it not only gives children the opportunity to see somebody just like them, but it also gives adults that affirmation,” Barbara Kelley, executive director of the Hearing Loss Association of America, said. “One of the people in our community said to me: ‘I have been trying to get bright pink hearing aids like Barbie!’ I think a lot of adults would love to hear bright pink hearing aids. It’s a big step for so many reasons.”
Kelley noted hearing loss is a much bigger public health concern than is often detected, as many people with the condition may not get diagnosed or receive treatment. Some 15% of American adults, or around 37.5 million, have reported some issues with hearing, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Having a company like Mattel raise awareness of the issue through a Barbie brings some light to what Kelley says is an “invisible disability.”
“When we talk about diversity and inclusion, we think of people of different cultures and races,” Kelley said. “But we have to remember people with disabilities, who are often underemployed. With hearing loss, for example, sometimes people are on the job and they don’t reveal they have hearing loss because of embarrassment or stigma.”
Mattel partnered with Dr. Jen Richardson, a hearing loss advocate and educational audiologist, to make sure its portrayal of real people was accurate.
“I’m honored to have worked with Barbie to create an accurate reflection of a doll with behind-the-ear hearing aids,” Richardson said in a statement. “I’m beyond thrilled for my young patients to see and play with a doll who looks like them.”
Seeking that collaboration with a hearing loss medical expert and the patient community is integral for efforts like this, Kelley noted.
“There’s a lot of misperception with older people who don’t want to get hearing aids because they think of the hearing aids of yesterday — which were big, clunky and bulky,” Kelley said. “I think it’s important Mattel reached out to the hearing loss community to make sure the design was as accurate and authentic as possible.”
“Companies who aren’t in the business of hearing health might stand up and take note,” Kelley continued. “So that if they have an employee who has hearing loss, it doesn’t become stigmatized. It’s something that becomes more normal — that this person has capabilities and work ethic, who just happens to have a hearing loss. I think this is a great step in the right direction.”
In 2020, Mattel launched Barbie Fashionistas with the goal of expanding its collection to include more skin tones, body types, and even Barbies with wheelchairs. The Fashionistas line aims to “celebrate diversity with fashion dolls that encourage real-world storytelling and open-ended dreams,” the company writes.