Barbie ‘Self-Care’ sells children a distorted image of true well-being

A week ago I took three of my younger siblings to the local Target so we could browse the toy section. It’s our routine; every time I come home, little kids ruin me at a toy or video game store. As my 12-year-old sister walked to the pet care section and my 8-year-old brother and brother-in-law gushed over NERF guns, my eyes fell on a screen called “Barbie: Self- Care”.

The poster featured three slim, ethnically diverse Barbie dolls. One was practicing yoga, another was spending a day at the spa, the third was dressed in pajamas. The rest of the “Self-Care” dolls I saw were painting or doing outdoor activities. “Barbie Meditation,” which claims to provide kids with guided meditations, gave me hope for a second, thinking it might teach kids anxiety-provoking techniques. But when I pressed the button, a rushing, recorded voice saying “Inhale, exhale”, made me doubt its therapeutic benefit.

I’ve been talking about the commodification and militarization of personal care for a long time, so I had a gut reaction. When I curtly posted a photo of the display, with the words “We live in hell” a few people accused me of being joyless, and some were really confused, saying it was a positive thing for Barbie to create dolls that teach young girls to take care of themselves.

It’s understandable that people were puzzled by my dislike of these dolls, because as a society we’ve long associated the Instagrammable aesthetic these dolls portray with genuine self-care. But self-care is something much deeper, much more revolutionary – and something we seem to be in danger of losing our understanding of.

Self-care is a term coined and developed by black essayist and poet Audre Lorde. In a 1994 essay published in his book foreign sister, Lorde spoke about the fight against breast cancer and the racist recklessness society showed for her as a black woman. She wrote “Caring for me is not self-indulgence, it’s self-preservation, and it’s an act of political warfare.” Surviving in a world that actively plots against your survival, Lorde teaches us, is resistance.

Self-Care Barbie

In recent years, the “self-care” label has been attached to everything from manicures and psychotherapy to kombucha drinking and ghosting. I don’t deny that all of these things can be acts of self-care, sometimes even radical acts of self-care. Ghosting an attacker, for example, is an extremely difficult act of self-preservation. But the individualist, consumerist lens has distorted what it means to take care of yourself.

Now, there’s a lot of money to be made commodifying personal care on the internet, marketing products that claim to promise a “healthy” or “toxin-free” lifestyle. Beauty treatments cease to be pleasant little indulgences and become maintenance tasks, obligations linked to self-awareness about our appearance. (I’m starting to dislike how I look when I have to do a facial, an activity I used to find just relaxing). Participation in genuinely helpful practices like psychotherapy and hobbies become outward markers of personal worth, checkboxes on a list of who is good or, most importantly, relationship material. There is a popular opinion that a person struggling with self-esteem is unworthy of receiving love or companionship.

In this cultural context, Barbie Self-Care dolls become anything but politically neutral. It’s not good for a 5-year-old to start thinking about tending to their personal brand as a wellness guru – but that’s the direction these dolls are pointing.

Ultimately, the dolls are no different from the Barbie dolls I grew up with in the 90s, who did all the same activities like exercise and spa days. There is nothing wrong with these activities. They are all enjoyable for many people. But when a mental health awareness veneer is applied to essentially the same dolls I played with over two decades ago, it’s a superficial attempt to be fashionable at the expense of kids.

As adults, many of us feel the pressure and inadequacy of not being “wellness-focused” enough, as our favorite Instagram influencers or celebrities seem to be. Failure to focus on one’s own self-care can be seen as a moral failure or character flaw, and we are constantly rushing to keep up. “Wellness” – in the form of yoga classes, spa treatments and even therapy – has become its own drudgery and financial stress.

Children are people too. Just smaller and with less experience. They observe that this type of “self-care” has become another measure for judging a person’s worth. And just like with adults, it makes them shy.

Self-Care Barbie

Self-Care Barbie

Except that children don’t have the legal or financial power to care for themselves consistently. Self-love and self-care is about doing it yourself, but it doesn’t have the power to do the things this Barbie doll portrays. They can’t decide whether to go to therapy themselves, take each other for beauty treatments, or go to yoga classes unless their parents approve of it and are financially able to cover the costs. In many cases, children are discouraged or punished for engaging in even real, radical acts of self-care, such as standing up to toxic family members. And at the extreme, conservative Christian parents actually forbid their children from meditating or practicing yoga – which is originally a Hindu practice – since they see it as the worship of another religion. Meditation and yoga have even been banned in schools in Alabama – although they were dropped in 2021 – and conservative groups continue to try to have them banned in other states.

The world should be different. But the fact is that children cannot independently participate in most “self-care” activities or even fully engage in more radical philosophies around them because their lives are controlled by their parents. You could say that a doll participating in yoga helps normalize it, but the reality is that these versions of self-care have already been normalized for most children. They have simply been attached to harmful ideas about self-esteem and capitalism.

In reality, this Barbie doll takes activities that could and should be fairly child-neutral, like painting and pedicures, and filters them through the lens of our new secular religion: wellness and self-care. Which makes it even more charged with meaning and judgment.

The problem with a self-care doll is not the activities themselves. The problem is that it is harmful to reify viewpoints that make children feel embarrassed and unworthy. Although the standard of “well-being” differs for children, they still know that they are judged by how they are perceived. But they have no agency to seek that well-being, a fact that society does not want to reckon with because it is not ready to give children the autonomy they deserve. As a population, children have one of the least legally sanctioned personalities of any other marginalized group.

A generation ago, when I was growing up, debates about Barbie dolls centered on how they made children feel judged based on their physical appearance. With many dolls remaining incredibly thin, white, cis, and capable, this hasn’t diminished. Instead, another element has been introduced – corporations cashing in on gains made by mental health advocates, regurgitating this to young children in ways that are ultimately at best superficial and at worst actively harmful.

RELATED: Is It Possible To Fully Embrace Yoga Without Going Vegan?

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About Patrick K. Moon

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