Barbie has been a cultural icon since she hit the toy aisle more 60 years ago—and now, the doll is about to make her big screen live-action debut. The movie, co-written and directed by Greta Gerwig and starring Margot Robbie as Barbie and Ryan Gosling as Ken, comes out July 21. Before you head to the theater, here’s what you need to know about the doll that started it all.
1. Barbie was born on March 9, 1959.
Barbie’s official birthday represents her public debut at the 1959 American International Toy Fair in New York. She stood 11 inches tall and was dressed for a pool party in her black and white striped one-piece. Barbie was instantly recognizable as the only toy in the doll aisle that wasn’t modeled as a baby or a little kid—having a grown woman as a plaything for children was an entirely new concept. One thing she didn't have at first? A belly button. That was added to her design more than 40 years later, in 2000.
2. She was designed by an engineer who used to work for the Pentagon.
Jack Ryan began his career as an engineer, making missiles for the Pentagon, but was eventually hired away by Mattel for his “space-age savvy” and knowledge of materials (meaning, he’d be able to make high-quality, well-functioning toys). His designs helped give Barbie her twistable waist and “click click” knee joints.
3. She was based on an R-rated German doll.
Though Ryan designed Barbie, the concept came from Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler. Handler was traveling through Europe with her kids when she came across a German Bild Lilli doll, who was anything but kid-friendly: Lilli was a high-class call girl who began her life as a comic and was sold in smoke shops and adult toy stores. But Handler—who had mentioned the idea of an adult doll to her Mattel exec husband before—liked what she saw. Her husband Elliot had initially balked at the idea, but the Lilli dolls sold him on the concept.
Handler would later write in her autobiography, “My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be. Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.”
Bild Lilli’s manufacturer initially sued Mattel for patent infringement, but the case was eventually dismissed and Mattel officially bought the rights to the doll for $21,600.
4. Barbie is named after the creators’ daughter.
Barbie is named after the Handlers’ daughter, Barbara, and Ken is named after their son, Kenneth. In Barbie’s world, her parents are George and Margaret Roberts from Willows, Wisconsin. Other family members include her siblings: Skipper, Tutti, Todd, Stacie, Kelly, Chelsea, and Krissy. Tutti and Todd are twins … but so are Todd and Stacie, apparently (at least according to Todd’s box). She also has cousins named Francie and Jazzie.
5. One of her siblings went missing.
Only adding to that whole twin sibling mystery: Tutti mysteriously disappeared in 1971, so we can only assume that Stacie (introduced in 1992) is Tutti reincarnated.
6. Barbie has been at the center of some very real body-image controversies.
Barbie has been at the center of many body image controversies over the years due to her ridiculously svelte-yet-busty figure. Mattel makes Barbie at a one-sixth scale, which is standard scale for action figures. This would make Barbie's measurements 38-18-28 (reports vary based on versions of dolls). Various outlets and organizations have pointed out how these proportions make her more than just an unrealistic standard—they would make a human woman physically incapable of walking, holding up her head, or having fully functioning internal organs. Mattel has responded to calls for change by releasing a number of dolls with varying body types, skin tones, and hairstyles. More recently, it has released a doll with Down syndrome and the “Inspiring Women” series, which features people like Jane Goodall and Ida B. Wells.
7. One special-edition Barbie came with a weight loss book that included “Don’t Eat” as a tip.
Making body-image matters even worse is a piece of Barbie’s history—1965’s Slumber Party Barbie came with her very own “How to Lose Weight” book, which included tips like “don’t eat.” She also came with a bathroom scale that put the 5-foot-9-inch Barbie in at 110 pounds. Well, 5-feet-9-inches if you consider the one-sixth scale, which makes Barbie about 35 pounds underweight.
8. An original Barbie is worth some serious money today.
The first Barbie sold for $3 each (various accessories were extra). These days, an original in mint condition could likely fetch nearly $25,000 at auction. Of course, plenty of non-mint Barbies are also worth a pretty penny (as are the doll’s accessories), and are regularly for sale on eBay and through various vintage retailers.
9. There have been lots of celebrity Barbies.
British fashion icon Twiggy was the first real-life celebrity to get her own Barbie—the supermodel's doll wore a mod mini-skirt, go-go boots, and her signature spider lashes. Many other famous people have had their own Barbies as well, including dolls wearing the classic looks of Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, and Audrey Hepburn, as well as more modern women like Nicki Minaj, Gigi Hadid, and Ava Duvernay.
10. Barbie’s first career was as a teen model.
Since embarking on her first career as a teen fashion model, Barbie has had may other jobs, including a fashion editor, a flight attendant, a ballerina, a tennis pro, an executive, a candy striper, an astronaut, a surgeon, Miss America, a gold medal gymnast, an actress, an aerobics instructor, a reporter, a rock star, a UNICEF ambassador, an army officer, a rapper, a chef, a police officer, a Rockette, a baseball player, a SCUBA diver, a U.S. Air Force Thunderbird Squadron Leader, a paleontologist, a NASCAR driver, a pilot, a sign language teacher, a presidential candidate, an American Idol winner, a zoologist, a Space Camp instructor, and a fashion intern (which came decades after her fashion editor gig). And this list is by no means exhaustive—she’s had more than 200 careers so far.
11. Barbie owned her own home before many real-life women could do the same.
Barbie got her first Dreamhouse in 1962 at a time when that opportunity wasn’t available to many real single women: They often needed a man to co-sign for things like mortgages and credit cards, a fact that didn’t change until the passage of the Equal Opportunity Credit Act in 1974.
12. Her signature color, in case you hadn’t noticed, is pink.
A version of this story ran in 2009; it has been updated for 2023.