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How young women like Yara Shahidi are helping Barbie stay relevant

Natalie Mayrath
Producer/Reporter

Since Barbie was “born” in 1959, she’s been busting through ceilings, be they glass or plastic. She was created for women by a woman, the legendary Ruth Handler, who ran Mattel when barely a glimpse of women existed in business leadership.

So for Barbie’s 60th anniversary, it’s no surprise she went big, honoring an unprecedented 20 role models from 18 countries across the globe in an effort to represent and honor diversity, and reinforce the Barbie brand’s mission to show young girls that they can actually be anything they imagine.

“Grownish” star and activist Yara Shahidi, whose likeness was tapped in the latest installment of Barbie “Sheroes” (alongside the likes of Naomi Osaka and Adwoa Aboah), saw that possibility in the toys she grew up with, including her own Barbies.

“My parents were really intentional, so a lot of brown Barbies in my life… my toys, my media, my books all reinforced this idea of anything being possible within my world and within my potential,” she says.

Shahidi points out that Barbie’s significance and staying power go deeper than just a visual reflection. “I think Barbie as a brand has represented our evolution almost as a country,” she says. “We've come a long way in that when you look at the history of women’s suffrage, especially as you get into the facts of when Native American women were allowed to vote or when black women are allowed to vote, you get into women's rights in the workplace and the rules that are being passed -- these are all things that contribute to us having a freer space as women of this generation.”

Mattel, which also sells Fisher-Price toys, Hot Wheels toys and American Girl Dolls, has seen 5 consecutive quarters of growth, which could be riding on the relevancy of Barbie’s messaging for women of the world. Lisa McKnight, SVP and Global Head of Barbie for Mattel, says “the secret to the success of Barbie is she’s continued to reflect culture and the world girls see around them.”

Both Shahidi and Barbie share a passion for the importance of role models and mentors in girls’ lives. According to Mentoring.org, young girls who have a mentor starting as early as high school are 130% more likely to take on leadership positions throughout their careers.

Studies show that girls can develop limiting self-beliefs and lack of confidence as early as age 5.

With its Barbie Dream Gap Project Fund Mattel aims to raise awareness around limiting factors that prevent girls from reaching their full potential.

Shahidi, who who counts Michelle Obama as one of her mentors, provides mentorship opportunities to young women in New York City high schools through her non-profit, Yara’s Club. She hopes her work will give future generations confidence.

“We have been given messages that say we have to change ourselves to fit in,” she says. “Be yourself and let the world catch up.”

In addition to its latest installment of role models, Mattel also launched a 60th Anniversary doll collection celebrating six careers that have been in the Barbie line from the beginning, but are still underrepresented by women, including astronaut, pilot, athlete, journalist, politician and firefighter.

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