Looking back at six decades of Barbie

Written by:
November 25, 2020
Ian Waldie // Getty Images

Looking back at six decades of Barbie

Ruth Handler created the Barbie doll in 1959 after she saw her daughter getting creative with paper dolls. Before Barbie—which was very similar to the German adult doll Lilli—American girls mostly acted as caregivers to baby dolls. Handler, who co-founded Mattel with her husband, had the radical idea to create a doll that could show girls they could be caregivers, yes, but they could also be anything else they could imagine. Over the past six decades, the iconic doll has changed hairstyles, facial expressions, and held more than 200 jobs.

Though some say Barbie is a career-oriented feminist, the doll's body size has always been a source of controversy. If she was real, Barbie's original waist would have measured an impossibly small 18 inches. While her midsection expanded and her chest shrank a couple of times over the decades, it wasn't until 2016 that Mattel introduced figures other than the original version. The Fashionista line now features numerous body types, skin tones, and hairstyles. In the fall of 2019, Barbies with prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs hit the market. In 2020, Mattel released a new line of Barbie Extra dolls that showcases a wide variety of personalities and styles.

Throughout Barbie's life as an architect, entrepreneur, presidential candidate, computer engineer, and Mars explorer, she has remained a successful toy for Mattel. It wasn't until 2014 that Elsa from “Frozen” exceeded Barbie's popularity on little girls' Christmas wish lists.

To see how Barbie has changed over the years, Stacker combed through the famous doll's history. We've scoured news reports, checked Barbie's historical timeline, and read through “The Story of the Barbie Doll” by Kitturah B. Westenhouser and “Barbie: Four Decades of Fashion, Fantasy, and Fun” by Marco Tosa.

Keep reading to learn more about how Barbie's looks, jobs, and body have changed in the last six decades years, including the ways she has made history and inspired several generations and counting.

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Chesnot // Getty Images

1959: First Barbie introduced

Handler debuted the first Barbie—a teenage fashion model named after her daughter Barbara —at the 1959 American Toy Fair in New York City. Donning a black-and-white knit bathing suit and a sideways stare, the doll came with a ponytail, white sunglasses, and hoop earrings. More than 300,000 dolls sold in the first year.

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dollyhaul // Flickr

1960: Barbie becomes a fashion designer

Barbie added new outfits in 1960, including ensembles for glamorous nights out and clothes she could wear to work. Fashion designer Barbie wore black-rimmed glasses and carried a portfolio with black-and-white sketches.

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vaniljapulla // Flickr

1961: Ken is introduced

In 1961, Barbie became a registered nurse and a stewardess for American Airlines. She also got a boyfriend. A blonde or brunette Ken, a doll named after Handler's son, came with a closet full of clothes. His hair was originally molded and glued on, but designers switched to painted-on plastic after the hair came off too easily.

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RomitaGirl67 // Flickr

1962: Barbie gets a new hairstyle

Barbie ditched the ponytail in favor of a short “bubble cut” in 1962. The hairstyle came in several shades, including brunette and titian (another way of saying red). Her fashion sense mirrored that of Jacqueline Kennedy, including a pillbox hat. Barbie was also ready to entertain in her first Dreamhouse.

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Susan Evans // Getty Images

1963: Barbie the babysitter

Barbie added babysitting to her list of jobs in 1963. The Barbie Baby-Sits kit included books on how to get a raise, travel, and even one called “How To Lose Weight.” In addition to dieting tips, Barbie got a freckled best friend named Midge. The popular sidekick got her own boyfriend, Allan, the following year. This photograph depicts Barbie doing real things and originally appeared in the book "Forever Barbie (Morrow)" by M.G. Lord.

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Joe Haupt // Flickr

1964: Barbie gets a sister

Skipper, Barbie's sister, went to ballet class and ice skated. Designers also gave “Miss Barbie” bendable legs, molded hair with wig options, and eyes that could open and shut. Miss Barbie wasn't a huge hit at the time, but collectible versions can now sell for hundreds of dollars.

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Peter Bischoff // Getty Images

1965: Barbie goes to space

Two years after cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space, Miss Astronaut Barbie hit the market. She dressed in a metallic space suit with zipper boots. 1965 also marked the controversial release of “Slumber Party Barbie,” whose accessories included a diet book with tips like “don't eat” and a scale set to 110 pounds. The toy maker excluded the scale the following year, but kept the book.

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RomitaGirl67 // Flickr

1966: Color Magic Barbie

Color Magic Barbie gave kids the ability to change the doll's hair color from blonde to scarlet flame and midnight to ruby red. When the doll's hair was treated with a solution of vinegar and water, the wigs would change color. A saline solution changed them back to their original shade without a mess.

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Peter Bischoff/PB Archive // Getty Images

1967: The first celebrity Barbie

Twiggy was the first celebrity to get her own Barbie. Since then, Cher, Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, and many others have all been immortalized by Mattel. Barbie also started twisting at the waist, and designers gave her a more youthful face with wide-open blue eyes.

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RomitaGirl67 // Flickr

1968: Barbie gets a Black friend she can share clothes with

A Black doll named Francie was introduced in 1967, but Christie was Barbie's first Black friend who shared the same body size. While Christie has been a popular doll for decades, many have complained that her features were not authentic to Black women.

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RomitaGirl67 // Flickr

1969: New flip hair

Twist ‘n Turn Barbie came with a flip hairstyle as the ‘60s ended. Marlo Thomas sported the same look in the popular show “That Girl,” which aired from 1966 to 1971.

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picture alliance // Getty Images

1970: Dramatic New Living Barbie

Barbie became fully poseable in 1970. She didn't just bend at the knees and twist at the waist; she could do splits and bend her arms.

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Lawrence Lucier // Getty Images

1971: Malibu Barbie solidifies the modern look

Malibu Barbie hit stores in 1971. This new version was tan with Barbie's iconic, long blonde hair. Instead of pursed lips, she showed off a white grin and started looking straight forward instead of to the side.

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Mama Lita // Shutterstock

1972: Sales decline for the first time

Barbie's breasts got bigger in 1972. That same year, sales of the doll declined for the first time since they came to market. Barbie's unrealistic figure was not a hit with second-wave feminists. “The movement against her began during the women's movement,” said Andrea Nevins, director of “Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie.”

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Eduardo Parra // Getty Images

1973: Barbie becomes a surgeon

For the first time since 1966 (when she became a Pan Am stewardess), Barbie got a new job. In 1964, Barbie went to hospitals as a candy striper, but her new job as a surgeon led her to the operating room.

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RomitaGirl67 // Flickr

1974: Barbie turns 16

In 1974, Mattel released a promotional Barbie to celebrate the doll's 16th birthday. Part of Times Square in New York City was renamed Barbie Boulevard for a week to mark the occasion. Barbie also became Miss America that year.

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Barbie Mattel

1975: Skipper grows up and out

Mattel advertised Growing Up Skipper as “2-dolls-in-1” that users could make “grow from a young girl to a teenager in seconds.” With a rotation of her arm, Skipper's waist extended and her breasts got bigger. After a public backlash, Mattel stopped selling the doll. She came back four years later with breasts that stayed put. Barbie added Olympic athlete to her list of skills; she won gold in downhill skiing, figure skating, and gymnastics.

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Freddycat1 // Flickr

1976: Barbie and Ken in time capsule

When the American Bicentennial Time Capsule was buried in 1976, Barbie and Ken were put inside. 1976 also saw the release of the first Hawaiian Barbie. Pictured here is a newer Hawaiian Barbie.

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nicolenicole // Flickr

1977: Superstar Barbie sports friendlier look

Superstar Barbie featured sleek long blonde hair, removable jewelry, and a “softer, friendlier look.” People who bought the doll—a fashion model—could get their own necklace and bracelet.

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ABC Television // Wikimedia Commons

1978: Barbie creates a Cheryl Ladd doll

Mattel gave Barbie another famous friend in 1978 when they made a Cheryl Ladd doll in honor of “Charlie's Angels.” Barbie's fashion sense in the late ‘70s featured floral prints and jumpsuits.

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nicolenicole // Flickr

1979: Barbie gets tan lines

As the ‘80s approached, Barbie wanted to relax in the sun and not worry about sunscreen. Sun Lovin' Malibu Barbie came with “a peek-a-boo tan” that showed underneath her two-piece turquoise bikini.

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Barbie Mattel

1980: First Black and Hispanic Barbies

Barbie's friend Christie came out in 1968, but the first official African American Barbie didn't hit the shelves until 1980. Since designers used the Steffie face mold—Barbie's white friend released in 1972—the new Black Barbie still had features similar to her white counterpart. Mattel also released a Hispanic Barbie that year.

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nicolenicole // Flickr

1981: Barbie goes Western

In 1981, Barbie followed in the footsteps of Dolly Parton and became a Western star. With the press of a button on her back, she could wink while stamping her autograph. Barbie also put on some leg warmers and a pair of roller skates. A decade later, she took up rollerblading.

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Thomas Hawk // Flickr

1982: Barbie works at McDonald's

Mattel released the Barbie Loves McDonald's play set in 1982. Barbie could wear a McDonald's uniform with a hat. There was even a tiny spatula for flipping tiny burgers.

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Kentaro Ohno // Flickr

1983: First Spanish Barbie released

In 1983, the first Spanish Barbie was released. Mattel had previously made an Eskimo, Scottish, Italian, and Indian doll. The Dolls of the World collection continued to expand to other countries across the globe.

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SvartaBaskern // Flickr

1984: Barbie gets in great shape

Jane Fonda released her first exercise home video in 1982. Mattel followed the workout craze two years later with Great Shape Barbie. She was an aerobics instructor who donned a sweatband, full-body leotard, and leg warmers. Commercials claimed that working out kept Barbie looking great for a date.

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Pierre VAUTHEY // Getty Images

1985: Barbie gets more careers

Mattel introduced the “We Can Do Anything” campaign, so Barbie became part-businesswoman, part-party girl with her Day-to-Night kit. She was dressed in a pink power suit and had a calculator and briefcase. Her skirt flipped inside out to reveal evening wear. In 1985, she also became a veterinarian and a teacher—getting a promotion from her 1965 role as a student teacher.

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Eduardo Parra // Getty Images

1986: Andy Warhol paints Barbie

Oscar de La Renta created a line of clothes for Barbie in 1985. The following year, artist Andy Warhol painted Barbie's likeness. The piece, called “Barbie, Portrait of BillyBoy*,” was painted in honor of BillyBoy*, a designer who owned tens of thousands of Barbies and also designed two of the dolls for Mattel.

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Freddycat1 // Flickr

1987: Barbie becomes a doctor

Barbie came out of the operating room and into general practice in 1987. After a day of checking on patients, she could quickly change for a glamourous date night with Ken since her kit came with evening wear.

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Freddycat1 // Flickr

1988: Happy Holidays Barbie dresses up

Mattel released the first Happy Holidays Barbie in 1988. She wore a red tulle gown spotted with glitter. In later years, Barbie's holiday gowns came in white, green, and black. In 1996, she donned a burgundy velvet coat trimmed in white faux fur with a white hand warmer and hat to match. Vintage versions of the holiday dolls are collector's items.

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Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection // Getty Images

1989: Barbie turns 30

When Barbie turned 30, Mattel celebrated at New York City's Lincoln Center. Guests received a Pink Jubilee Barbie who wore a silver lamé gown. Barbie also became a representative for UNICEF when she started her third decade. Here, actresses Jane Curtin and Susan Saint James are seen holding a special edition Barbie Doll Benefiting UNICEF.

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dollyhaul // Flickr

1990: Barbie becomes a bridesmaid

In 1990, Barbie was a bridesmaid for her best friend Midge. Collectors could also get a special edition Party Sensation Barbie, who came dressed in head-to-toe pink.

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US Army

1991: Barbie joins the Navy and Air Force

Navy Barbie, who was a petty officer first class and quartermaster, was dressed in a replica of a U.S. Navy women's uniform. When she wasn't on the ship, she spent time as a music video star or as an Air Force pilot.

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vaniljapulla // Flickr

1992: Barbie tells girls math is hard

The 1992 version of Teen Talk Barbie voiced her disdain for arithmetic when she said, “math class is tough.” The American Association of University Women didn't like the message this sent to young girls. Mattel didn't recall the doll, but parents could switch their doll for one that wouldn't say the phrase. Mattel's president at the time, Jill E. Barad, admitted to the error. "In hindsight, the phrase 'math class is tough,' while correct for many students both male and female, should not have been included,” said Barad. Totally Hair Barbie hit stores the same year, becoming the best selling Barbie of all time. She was re-released in 2017.

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1993: Barbie becomes a police officer

As part of The Career Collection, Barbie got her police badge in 1993. The limited-edition doll came with a uniform and hat, but Barbie also had a white and gold dress to change into after work. She also became a U.S. Army medic.

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Marcin Wichary // Flickr

1994: Barbie goes back to space

Barbie went back to space in a NASA-style helmet and spacesuit. Also, in another release, Dr. Barbie used her medical degree to become a pediatrician in 1994. The doll came with small babies and a pressure-activated stethoscope that would mimic a real heartbeat. 

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christiane bondoux // Flickr

1995: Barbie becomes a Baywatch lifeguard

Barbie put on a Baywatch bathing suit in 1995. Her job title says she’s a lifeguard, but she seems to only save her dolphin companion—at least according to the commercials that ran in the mid-90s. The television show (1989–2001) wasn’t marketed toward children, but the Baywatch Barbie was.

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Peter // Flickr

1996: Shaving Fun Ken loses his beard

In a time when beards were less mainstream, Mattel released Shaving Fun Ken. Kids could lather up Ken's face and use a toy razor that would remove his scruff with warm water. Barbie and Ken also went into space for the 30th Anniversary of “Star Trek.” Unlike Ken, Barbie did not have her own phaser.

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DinosArt // Shutterstock

1997: Barbie's waist gets bigger

Mattel decided to give Barbie a more realistic figure in 1997, making her waist bigger and breasts smaller. In a marketing move that caused controversy, the company partnered with Nabisco and released both a white and Black Oreo-branded Barbie. The term Oreo can be used as a derogatory term toward women of color, and Barbie eventually recalled the unsold dolls. Mattel also released Share-a-Smile Becky, a friend of Barbie's who used a wheelchair. Unfortunately, the Dreamhouse elevator proved not to be handicap accessible.

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Gary Stevens // Flickr

1998: Barbie joins NASCAR

Barbie was very active in the late ‘90s. She entered the male-dominated sports of Major League Baseball and NASCAR. Plus, she joined a soccer team. A version of Barbie also got a body makeover. The Really Rad Barbie came with flat feet and a bigger waist but smaller hips and breasts.

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Disney // Pixar

1999: Barbie appears in 'Toy Story 2'

On her 40th birthday, Barbie got a role in “Toy Story 2.” She played a tour guide in the film. De Beers created a special edition 40th Anniversary Barbie with a diamond-encrusted belt. The doll sold for $85,000.

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2000: Barbie runs for president...again

Barbie made her second run for president in 2000. Her hair was cut into a short style reminiscent of Hillary Clinton, who was the first lady at the time. Barbie also ran for the highest elected office in 2004, 2008, and 2012, when she ran the “I Can Be...President” campaign.

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Lions Gate Home Entertainment

2001: Barbie's first feature film

Barbie appeared in her first animated feature film when she starred in “Barbie in the Nutcracker.” The series went on to produce more than 30 movies. Filmmakers are currently working on the first live-action Barbie movie.

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2002: Pregnant Midge causes controversy

Midge and her husband Alan (then on the third spelling of his first name) welcomed a baby girl with the Happy Family set. The infant—who went to Dr. Barbie for check-ups—was tucked inside a pregnant Midge's removable womb. The doll sold well, but some parents felt that Midge was too young to have a child and feared the doll could represent teen pregnancy. Retail giant Walmart wouldn't sell it, and Pregnant Midge was discontinued in 2005.

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Laboo Studio // Shutterstock

2003: Saudi Arabia declares Barbie a moral threat

In 2003, religious police in Saudi Arabia claimed Barbie was immoral. "Jewish Barbie dolls, with their revealing clothes and shameful postures, accessories, and tools are a symbol of decadence to the perverted West. Let us beware of her dangers and be careful," said the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. The claim didn't hurt sales a bit: Barbie had already been banned in Saudi Arabia for a decade.

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Suphatthra olovedog // Shutterstock

2004: Barbie and Ken break up

In heartbreak news, Barbie and Ken broke up in 2004. Shortly after, a new man named Blaine came into her life. In 2006, a re-styled Ken was released. The couple got back together in 2011 and Mattel released new wedding versions to honor the reunion. Mattel may have changed up the storyline and added new dolls and products to compete with the popular line of Bratz dolls, which came out in 2001.

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Patrick McMullan // Getty Images

2005: Barbie wins 'American Idol'

A year into her new single life—and a year after another bid for president—Barbie competed in and won “American Idol.” She channeled her inner Britney Spears and sang “Oops!... I Did It Again.”

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goodbishop // Shutterstock

2006: Barbie may lower self esteem

Mattel says Barbie's dimensions were created so kids could easily change the doll's clothes, not to mimic the real measurements of an adult woman. However, a 2006 study showed that young girls who played with Barbie—or saw images of the thin doll—scored lower on a self-esteem scale.

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MARK RALSTON // Getty Images

2007: Barbie and Tanner recalled

In 2006, Barbie could use a magnetic “scooper” to pick up poop from her dog Tanner. A few people complained that the magnets came loose, so in 2007 Mattel issued a recall. While no injuries were reported, swallowing magnets can be dangerous.

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2008: Barbie coaches sports

Not only did Barbie run for president in 2008, but she also started coaching soccer and swimming in her spare time. She also took her professional cooking skills—which she learned the year before—and became a TV chef.

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TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP // Getty Images

2009: Barbie turns 50 and gets tattoos

U.S. designers paid tribute to a 50-year-old Barbie by hosting a runway show at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week. Michael Kors, Tommy Hilfiger, and Diane von Furstenberg—just to name a few—created fashions in the style of Barbie through the ages. Barbie also got tattoos when she entered her fifth decade. The Totally Stylin' Tattoos Barbie came with washable stickers kids could place on themselves, the doll, or her clothes. Some parents were upset, but the doll was a success in stores.

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cfiesler // Flickr

2010: Barbie becomes a computer engineer

In 2010, Barbie became a computer engineer. Along with her new job came a book called “Barbie: I Can Be A Computer Engineer.” The book caused controversy in 2014 when it was uncovered that the story portrayed Barbie as less than tech-savvy. “I'm only creating the design ideas,” Barbie says in the book, laughing. “I'll need Steven's and Brian's help to turn it into a real game." Mattel apologized for the content and later discontinued the print and digital book and pulled it from Amazon.

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2011: Prince William and Kate become dolls

To mark the first anniversary of the wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton, Barbie made a plastic version of the royal couple. The toys were sold in 2012 and later went on display at an art gallery in Madrid. Barbie also released another tattooed version that same year. The TokiDoki Barbie was meant for adult collectors and not marketed to children, but some parents weren't excited about the prospect of a doll with permanent ink. 

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2012: Drag queen Barbie strikes a pose

Designing duo The Blonds created their eponymous Barbie to mimic the style of a drag queen. The Blonds Barbie wasn't meant for children. Instead, the stylish doll was a collector's item for adults.

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Super Beijing // Flickr

2013: Barbie-themed restaurant opens in Taiwan

The same year Barbie became a Mars explorer, Barbie Café—licensed by Mattel—opened in Taipei, Taiwan. The company said it hoped the restaurant would show off the fashion behind the Barbie brand. The restaurant has since closed. A Barbie-themed restaurant opened in China in 2009 and closed two years later.

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Picture Alliance // Getty Images

2014: Barbie's friend Ella goes through chemotherapy

Mattel partnered with CureSearch for Children's Cancer to provide young cancer patients with Ella, a bald doll, to help them during chemotherapy treatments. Melissa Bumstead, whose daughter had leukemia, successfully petitioned the toy company to make more of the dolls after they were a hit with her daughter.

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Mike Windle // Gettle Images

2015: Barbie Sheroes debut

As part of the “You Can Be Anything” campaign—which encouraged young girls to explore a variety of professions—Mattel introduced the Shero line. One popular doll was inspired by director Ava DuVernay; it sold out within hours. Since then, the line of dolls has honored women including Olympic gold medalist Chloe Kim, plus-size model Ashley Graham (pictured), and ballerina Misty Copeland. Barbie also took to YouTube to become a vlogger in 2015. She encouraged girls to stop apologizing so much and also brought up topics like depression and bullying.

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Photograph by Kenji Aoki for Time

2016: Barbie's new body makes the cover of Time

Barbie's curvier figure made the cover of Time magazine the year Mattel introduced three new body types: tall, curvy, and petite. The Barbie STEM kit also came out in 2016, hitting the market with some criticism. While the kit did encourage young girls to problem-solve, people were not pleased that the experiments focused on gender stereotypes such as creating closet racks and washing machines.

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Ilya S. Savenok // Getty Images

2017: More diverse body types resonate

Barbie sales increased at the end of 2017, with a curvy redhead wearing a "Girl Power" T-shirt becoming the best seller in the Fashionistas line. Adding more diverse body types and skin tones are part of Barbie's mission going forward, because “it's what the world looks like,” according to Kim Culmone, vice president of Barbie design. As part of the Shero line, Mattel created a Barbie inspired by Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first Barbie to wear a hijab.

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Kristy Sparow // Getty Images

2018: Inspiring women line released

After Mattel surveyed 8,000 moms, they found that the majority of mothers said they were worried their daughters didn't have enough female role models. In response, the company released the Inspiring Women line. The series features 17 role models, including artist Frida Kahlo, mathematician Katherine Johnson, and aviator Amelia Earhart. Barbie sales in the fourth quarter of 2018 reached a five-year high.

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Barbie Mattel

2019: Dream Gap Project Fund launched for 60th anniversary

Mattel announced the Dream Gap Project in 2018 to address findings that, by age 5, girls commonly develop self-doubt and “begin to think they’re not as smart and capable as boys.” In 2019, in conjunction with Barbie’s 60th anniversary, the company launched the Barbie Dream Gap Project Fund to continue this global effort to inspire girls and “raise awareness around limiting factors that prevent girls from reaching their full potential. The initiative includes dollar-for-dollar matching contributions up to $250,000 for every doll sold in America, hosting worldwide “inspiring events,” and launching a diverse line of personalized dolls in the likeness of barrier-breaking role models (“more than 20 women across multiple countries and continents ranging from 19 to 85 years old and speaking 13 languages”).

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Mattel, Inc.

2020: Barbie Extra

In 2020, Mattel released a new line of Barbie dolls showcasing a wide variety of personalities and styles. Each of the five new dolls comes with its own pet and fashion accessories. Barbie Extra is all about exploring and celebrating individuality and self-expression. 

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