All the hype surrounding the new Barbie movie, which grossed $155 million in its opening weekend, has me flashing back to simpler days. Afternoons spent holed up with my besties searching for matching outfits for the lanky, hair-laden dolls, creating make-believe towns and endless searching for tiny shoes. Barbie, Skipper, Ken and dream house filled my childhood. What amazes me is that this 11-inch plastic doll is still teaching us new things!
Seeing the Barbie movie with my youngest of three grown daughters reminded me of their childhood as well as my own. When they reached Barbie age, I pushed aside my concerns of unrealistic body image and sexism when I observed the creativity the dolls unleashed in them. We talked about the fact that no one really looks like Barbie, do they?
My worries seemed unfounded, when for hours on end, our family room was transformed into Barbie world. My daughters’ Barbies had jobs and dreams and faced big-girl issues, opening a window into their futures—albeit one with tiny feet and impossibly big hair! Seeing beyond her exterior allowed us to look outside of ourselves and dream of possibilities.
The dolls, and their endless stream of accessories, gave my daughters an outlet for make-believe and imagination beyond other toys, which lasted for years.
Barbie popped into my life again last year, just after I began working as the director of strategic communications for the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), a leading organization that has been working to break down the stigma of hearing loss for more than 40 years. During my first weeks in the new position, Mattel released a new Barbie doll with a bright pink hearing aid! This decades-long icon suddenly did what others couldn’t: she showed the world that she was proud to wear her behind-the-ear hearing device. It was like nirvana—a childhood icon and a PR tool!
At the time, we shared a social post touting the new doll—a cultural icon helping to break down the stigma associated with hearing aids—and the post got good traction. HLAA knows that most people who could benefit from hearing aids, don’t get them, so seeing Barbie celebrated for wearing one was a real win! HLAA’s Executive Director Barbara Kelley did an interview celebrating Barbie’s new look for an online magazine.
During the recent excitement, we decided to do a Flashback Friday social post going into Barbie movie weekend, showing hearing-aid Barbie, and linking to the same magazine interview from 2022. At this writing, the viral Facebook post was up to 64,000 views and 222 shares, and is still gaining traction! Could it be that Barbie is helping us bring hearing health into the mainstream?
Hearing loss affects nearly 50 million Americans, and according to the World Health Organization (WHO), numbers worldwide are expected to double by 2050. Yet many of us don’t pay attention to our hearing, even though it’s part of our overall health and wellness.
Here’s a test…I bet you know your weight, give or take a few pounds. Likely you know your cholesterol level, blood pressure and vision score, right? Now, what about your hearing number? Chances are, you don’t know much about your hearing. Most of us don’t get regular checks, even though one in seven individuals has hearing loss and treating it could affect our overall health and well-being.
HLAA wants to educate the public and spread basic messages about the importance of protecting your hearing in loud environments. The WHO estimates that 1 billion young people are now at risk of noise-induced hearing loss, a condition that is irreversible yet preventable. What’s more, 80% of those who need hearing aids, don’t get them, due in part to the stigma that hearing aids are for old people. Enter Barbie with bright pink hearing aids to stir things up!
Although hearing-aid Barbie doesn’t make an appearance in the movie—that would’ve been double nirvana—we’re riding the wave of even the indirect attention and lessons she brings. HLAA would like to see hearing health awareness rise to the level of wearing sunscreen and seatbelts. Decades ago, those safety measures were also not mainstream habits, but now are commonly adopted.
Besides Barbie, hearing loss has made a lot of news lately, with the opening of the over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aid market in October 2022—an event that brought millions of media impressions. It got people talking about the prevalence and common signs of hearing loss, and potentially easier to obtain treatment options. Other recent pop-culture phenomena, like CODA’s Best Picture win, Paul Simon revealing his own single-sided deafness, the young Emmy-nominated actor who is deaf and the new Golden Bachelor with visible hearing aids, all collectively help raise awareness of hearing loss—a positive step for all of us.
A prevailing theme of the Barbie movie is that sameness doesn’t work—the all-Barbie world was caught in misconception and the all-Ken world was chaotic and violent. The usual criticisms will abound, but I take away a message of diversity and celebrate as the clicks on our post climb. Although we don’t see it in the film, we know there is a Barbie who revels in acknowledging and treating her hearing loss, and kids now have more opportunity to see a range of disabilities reflected in the dolls they use to imagine their futures.
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