New Barbie doll body shapes of petite, tall and curvy are seen next to the traditional Barbie. Picture: REUTERS
New Barbie doll body shapes of petite, tall and curvy are seen next to the traditional Barbie. Picture: REUTERS

MORE than 50 years after her debut, Mattel’s Barbie doll will be getting three new body sizes — curvy, petite and tall — to try to stem a long swoon in sales of the iconic toy.

The changes, coming later this year, are the latest attempt to address concerns that Barbie’s traditional tall, slim and blonde look is out of touch with children and the type of doll that girls want to play with.

"We believe we have a responsibility to girls and parents to reflect a broader view of beauty," Evelyn Mazzocco, a Mattel senior vice-president and head of the Barbie brand, said. The news was earlier reported by Time magazine.

Last year, Mattel introduced more skin tones, facial structures and hairstyles to its Fashionistas collection, the most diverse lineup that Mattel had given to Barbie since she was introduced in 1959.

Mattel has sold more than a billion Barbie dolls during the decades and it historically has been the company’s largest and most profitable toy. But its sales recently have fallen on hard times. In the last four quarters, Barbie’s global sales were $904.2m, down 14% from the previous four quarters. Mattel’s total sales fell 6.2% in that same period.

Barbie’s sales have decreased more than 10% in each of the last eight quarters, as the toy lost shelf space to dolls from Walt Disney’s Frozen property, which Mattel produced until this year, and even to some off-brand dolls that retailers would rather stock.

The slump by Barbie and some of Mattel’s other large brands, such as Fisher-Price, cost Mattel’s then-CEO, Bryan Stockton, his job last year. He has been replaced by Mattel’s longest-tenured board member, Chris Sinclair, who has overhauled Mattel’s management team and tried to refocus the company on making better toys.

Barbie has been a lightning rod for criticism since Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler introduced her creation at the 1959 Toy Fair in New York. Women’s groups complained that the blonde, plastic doll conveyed an unrealistic body image to girls.

Mattel expanded the toy line during the decades, introducing an African-American doll in 1967 and giving Barbie dozens of occupations, including art teacher and veterinarian. But the doll’s shape remained largely the same. More recent complaints have been around a lack of diversity in the line, especially now that nonwhite Hispanic children make up a majority of the US child population, according to the Census Bureau."

"My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be. Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices," Ms Handler wrote in her 1994 autobiography, Dream Doll: The Ruth Handler Story.

Ms Handler, who helped run Mattel for three decades until 1975, died in 2002.

The new Barbie doll lineup is much more reflective of the girls who play with them and the communities they belong to, said Pia Guerrero, who founded an advocacy group called Adios Barbie in the late 1990s to promote a broader representation of woman’s body images in popular culture."

Our call hasn’t been to throw Barbie out the window, but for her to be one body in a plethora of bodies," Ms Guerrero said. "It’s nice to see that they have different shapes and sizes because those bodies do exist."

One of Ms Guerrero’s remaining problems, however, is that the new doll molds still have Barbie’s patented hourglass figure. "Not everyone has a very small waist," she noted.

Leading Barbie’s turnaround is Richard Dickson, Mattel’s president and chief operating officer. Mr Dickson was brought back to Mattel several months before Mr Stockton’s dismissal, in hopes that he could re-create Barbie’s last successful stretch earlier this decade. While Barbie dabbled with diversity in the past, Mattel hasn’t made it a prime focus of its doll lineup until the last two years. Admittedly, the push is late, especially as children are growing up in an increasingly multicultural environment.

"Barbie needed to catch up to that," Mr Dickson said in an interview. "Today, we represent a vast array of choice, whether it be body or ethnicity."

The traditional blonde, blue-eyed Barbie will continue to be the mold that consumers associate with the brand, but Mr Dickson says that could change during the next few years as Mattel focuses a broader selection of dolls. He wouldn’t comment on whether more variations were planned.

Mattel has said that Barbie’s sales at retailers have improved in recent quarters, but the turnaround has not been as evident in its wholesale results. As with other global brands, Barbie’s sales have been hamstrung by the stronger dollar. Mattel next week is set to report results for the holiday quarter.

Analysts generally expect Mattel to show improving trends, helped by one of the best years the US toy industry has seen in more than a decade. According to Thomson Reuters, Mattel’s fourth-quarter sales are projected to fall 4% to $1.9bn, while per-share earnings are seen rising to 61c from 52c last year.

More Africa news from The Wall Street Journal

More news from The Wall Street Journal

Premium access to $1 a week for 12 weeks