Athletic Barbies and Real Women in Sports

A few weeks ago, I wrote about shrinking and pinking." What's that? It's how many athletic clothing and gear manufacturers make products for women: They simply shrink down the men's versions and dye them pink.

I believe that being athletically strong and wearing pink (or purple or red or silver ... or blue or orange or green, for that matter) don't have to be mutually exclusive. In other words, the pinking of women's sports can be okay sometimes, but pinking and shrinking (whether that shrinking is in terms of attention, media coverage, or the size of those pink clothes) isn't a good combination.

As I was reading the latest ESPN The Magazine, I came across a photo spread of athletic Barbie dolls through the years, which got me thinking about shrinking and pinking again.

Tennis Barbie and Ken, 1962.

Only twelve of these Barbies (1975-2010) are wearing pink (red, white, and blue is the color scheme of choice). The most recent athletic Barbie, Race Car Driver Barbie, does wear fuchsia, though note that she is pretty much covered head to toe (admittedly, her skintight/shrunken jumpsuit is probably not one Danica Patrick would wear on race day!).

Scuba Diver Barbie, 1994.

What really struck me was the attire of the Coach Barbies. The ten athlete Barbies are wearing outfits that, though not very fashionable, aren't so far off from what a real-life participant might wear (skintight racecar driver suit aside). However, the two Coach Barbie outfits are pretty absurd. Gymnastics Coach Barbie is wearing teeny-tiny shorts (with what looks to be a purse and ballet flats) and Soccer Coach Barbie is wearing a mini-mini skirt.

I wonder why Mattel decided to portray Women's World Cup Soccer Player Barbie in fairly accurate soccer clothes, but didn't follow through with the coach nine years later? The 2008 mini-Barbie soccer player is also wearing a skirt, and playing with a pink/white ball, not the standard black/white one depicted in 1999. I actually have never owned a Barbie doll; as I child I preferred American Girl dolls and real-life heroes.

Major League Baseball Barbie, 1998.

This week, I discovered two Crimson athletes who certainly qualify as role models: Harvard freshmen Mariah Pewarski and Morgan Powell play two, yes TWO, varsity sports -- field hockey and lacrosse. Neither girl is ever out of season as they balance school work, social lives, and practices and games. Who needs pink Barbies when you have Crimson role models like that?

We certainly saw a lot of other impressive female scholar-athletes this week, as the NCAA basketball tournament concluded. No pinking or shrinking here, as the maroon of Texas A&M defeated the green of Notre Dame -- and the viewership for both the title game and the entire tournament grew.

In other non-shrinking news this week, women's ski jumping gains Olympic status at last. Rachel Maddow did a great bit on this, and lady parts:

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I, for one, hope to see heroic Lindsey Van (no, not Lindsey Vonn) win gold in 2014. Though I'm not sure she should opt for Downhill Skier Barbie's 1974 duds, are you?

All images courtesy

Hilary Levey Friedman is a Harvard sociologist who studies childhood and competition. She blogs on these topics, and more, at Playing to Win!

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