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World of Barbie, a new immersive experience in Mississauga, shows how deep the doll’s cultural impact truly goes

The World of Barbie exhibit in Toronto invited guests to explore a life-sized Barbie dreamhouse.

She is the star of an animated film franchise, has a live-action movie in the making and inspires more than 18 billion minutes of user-generated content each year. No, she’s not your typical celebrity – she’s a doll that is sold 100 times each minute worldwide. Barbie is the original influencer, and now a new immersive experience in Mississauga lets you see how deep her cultural impact truly goes.

Both children and adults tend to scream with excitement as they walk into World of Barbie, a 30,000-square-foot travelling exhibit where visitors can explore a life-sized Barbie Dreamhouse. It can get loud: More than 50,000 fans have poured in since it opened in July.

I, however, went in with a somewhat cynical view of her world, thinking that Barbie was still the same woman she was when I was a kid: tall, thin and white. What I saw though were Barbies from different backgrounds, with different life passions and jobs, being fawned over by people from diverse cultures.

Bisma Bhatti, a 32-year-old entrepreneur from Oakville, Ont., was probably having more fun with her adult friends than most kids. She says a child-like excitement swept over her when she bought her tickets. “What pink outfit should I wear?” she wondered. “Should I wear a blond wig? What will the exhibits be like?”

Whether they dress the part or not, visitors essentially become Barbie upon entering. You can admire the Malibu beach view from the custom couch in her living room. You can grab a seat in her kitchen and snoop in the fridge, which is full of fruit and veggies (only healthy options, of course). And you can walk into her massive closet and ponder which outfit you’d wear before hopping into her full-size camper van for a road trip. Other sets include a music studio and a space shuttle. At the “Dreambuilder” experience, you can create your own Barbie, choosing what she’s going to be and what she’s going to wear.

Another part of the exhibit is a collection of Barbie dolls spanning the past 60 years – and it’s clear that today’s Barbie is a far cry from the one launched in 1959. There are now more than 170 dolls with different skin tones, hairstyles and careers. Canadian-themed ones include a Tim Hortons Hockey Barbie, a Raptors Barbie, HBC Barbie and a Tessa Virtue doll that is part of the “Shero” collection, aimed at inspiring girls to achieve their dreams. Barbie can also come with vitiligo, a prosthetic leg or a bald head (to help kids see themselves in her when they lose their hair for various health reasons).

But one major oversight for the brand remains: the lack of diverse body sizes. Although four different body types are now available, the “curvy” version, which is the largest, is said to be about a size 6 or 8 in real life.

So yes, Barbie has come a long way since I was a kid in the 1980s, but can she go further? Of course. Do I want to see a double chin on a Barbie, or wide hips and some pimples? Heck yes. And instead of just the Barbie Dreamhomes at the exhibit, I want to see Barbie’s apartment. I want her to shop at second-hand stores and ride a bike across town instead of driving a van.

Barbie’s world should evolve to one where home ownership and expensive clothes are not attainable (or important) for the average person.

As a biracial woman who grew up playing with Barbies, Bhatti says she acknowledges Barbie’s problematic history but is able to move past it. As a girl, she invented a more diverse world for her dolls than what toy company Mattel ever offered in the early 1990s. “It was filled with possibilities,” Bhatti says. “Creating my own Barbie world allowed my creativity to soar and provided me with endless hours of entertainment – and I think that is what is so magical about Barbie.”

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