Why a Barbie representing Down Syndrome matters

Aashi Gupta was born with Down Syndrome. Three holes in the heart, a blocked small intestine and malpositioned larger intestine made the first 5 years of her life harder. She battled recurrent attacks of life-threatening pneumonia. Today, at 11 years of age, the fighter girl is a cycling enthusiast, practices yoga and is an avid reader, dancer and painter. She even loves solving puzzles and enjoys playing with dolls. To a child like Aashi, a Barbie doll with Down Syndrome – Mattel’s latest innovation towards promoting inclusion and countering social stigma – could mean much more than just playtime.

“A doll with Down Syndrome is a step forward to normalise the concept of inclusion and diversity. It’s a huge step to advocate for neurodiversity, and sends a clear message that it’s normal to have a friend with Down Syndrome to play with,” Aashi’s mother Dr Nidhi Gupta, a dentist, tells Health Shots.

A 2022 study by neuroscientists at Cardiff University noted that playing with dolls can be beneficial to children’s overall emotional development and increase empathy towards others. It then makes more sense when Mattel says the Barbie doll with Down Syndrome is created to allow more children to see themselves in the beloved Barbie doll, as well as have Barbie reflect the world around them.

From the sculpt to the fashion, accessories and the orthotics, the design elements are carefully planned in association with the National Down Syndrome Society (NDSS). Almond shaped slanted eyes, smaller ears and a flatter nasal bridge are a part of the facial features, while the frame is shorter and torso slightly longer. This special Barbie also wears a yellow and blue colours with butterflies, a pink pendant necklace with three arrows and ankle foot orthotics – all symbols of Down Syndrome and its awareness.

Medical experts, parents, caregivers and patients have all appreciated this small but significant effort to spread awareness about this intellectual disability.

Child with Down Syndrome
A child with Down Syndrome needs acceptance. Adobe Stock

What is Down Syndrome?

Children with Down Syndrome have an extra copy of chromosome 21, which can result in intellectual disabilities and delays in language and social development. However, with early intervention and support, many children with Down syndrome are able to make significant progress in these areas, explains Dr Mukesh Kumar Khetan, Head of Department and Senior Consultant – Pediatrics, CARE Hospitals, Hi-Tec City, Hyderabad.

“Children with Down Syndrome often face challenges in socialisation and communication, which can lead to feelings of isolation and low self-esteem. The introduction of Barbie dolls with Down Syndrome is an important step in promoting inclusion and representation in toys,” adds Dr Khetan.

Also read: Living with Down Syndrome: Know its symptoms and causes

How can a Barbie with Down Syndrome benefit children

The expert also highlights the benefits that such toys can have for children with Down Syndrome and others around them.

* They can help to improve the self-esteem and confidence of children.
* Such toys can help to foster empathy and understanding in other children, which can be beneficial for both neurotypical and neurodiverse individuals.
* It can lead to a more inclusive and accepting society as it helps in normalizing Down Syndrome among both elders and children, reinforcing a comprehensive community to nurture children.
* Overall, it can have a positive impact on the social and emotional development of children with Down Syndrome.

Importance of screening tests to detect Down Syndrome in fetus

Ensuring that children with Down Syndrome grow up in a safe environment which is sensitive to their emotional, physical and intellectual needs, is important. But it is also more important to facilitate increased awareness about getting the right pregnancy scans for timely detection of any development disability in the fetus, points out Dr (Maj) Apar Mathur, MBBS, MD Radiology, Fellowship in Fetal Medicine and Consultant- Rajasthan Hospital, Jaipur.

“Prenatal screening tests enable identification of the risk of having a baby with Down Syndrome. An ultrasound scan around 11-14 weeks of the pregnancy can detect a spectrum disorder. It is of utmost importance for gynaecologists to make pregnant women aware about such tests so that they can take a timely decision about terminating the pregnancy,” says Dr Mathur.

Tests for Down Syndrome in fetus
Get timely ultrasound tests in early pregnancy to detect risk of spectrum disorder. Image courtesy: Adobe Stock

In some cases, however, a fetus may seem morphologically normal and may be born with less IQ or some peculiar features related to Down Syndrome. The society must be accepting towards them and normalise things as far as possible.

In that vein, introducing a Barbie doll – a toy which has been seen as an epitome of ‘perfection’ and ‘beauty’ – is quite a move. It won’t just urge more people to look up what Down Syndrome is, but also be more sensitive to somebody who suffers from it.

Breaking beauty standards with Barbie

It’s also a timely move from Mattel. For years, critics condemned Barbie as a poor role model for girls due to her unrealistic body image. The early avatar of a Barbie doll was typically white in skin tone, had an unusually slim waist and flaunted blonde hair – far from the idea of real women.

Actor Margot Robbie in Barbie
Greta Gerwig’s upcoming film Barbie will be all about breaking the perception of perfection! Image courtesy: Instagram | Margot Robbie

In the late 1960s, the company launched one of the first black dolls, later moving into representing women from different careers such as pilot, firefighter, astronaut and even president. With time, barbie dolls were developed across 35 skin tones, 97 hairstyles, 9 body types and more. Recently, dolls with hearing aid, wheelchair, prosthetic limb, and vitiligo were also released to normalise these medical conditions.

The buzz around Barbie can also largely be credited to filmmaker Greta Gerwig’s eponymous live action film starring Margot Robbie as Barbie and Ryan Gosling as Ken. Hollywood grapevine is abuzz that the film is an effort to deconstruct the perfect world of Barbie and redefine it with the current generation’s idea of beauty which centres around inner happiness.

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