For all the messages of self-esteem and girl power we Gen-Xers have received through the years, I still have feelings of embarrassment about my body -- thanks, in part, to all the other messages I've heard my entire life telling me I should be. I keep hoping that our daughters will grow up with a different outlook -- that our culture is progressing into a place where young women aren't afraid to be natural, aren't ashamed of their bodies, and don't think periods are "gross." We've made a lot of progress in this area ... that's why I was shocked to hear that American Girl brand dolls are taking a bold and regressive move to put permanent underwear on its Truly Me dolls and a few dolls in the BeForever collection, essentially turning them into "Never Nudes."
Remember the show Arrested Development and the character Tobias Funke, who could never be naked? He showered in his little cut-off jean shorts, a rather adorable and funny solution to his "gymnophobia," which apparently is a real condition. I relate to Tobias. When I was in school, I was the only kid to go into a bathroom stall to change my clothes after gym class. I would chat fully clothed as I waited till everyone was gone. Eventually I perfected the "change clothes in the locker room without showing anything at all" technique, which involved dressing in new clothes while still mostly wearing the old clothes. What can I say, I have skills.
While I don't think it's the worst thing in the world to be excessively modest, I do envy and admire people who can prance around in the locker room, undressed, confident, and carefree. That's the kind of body confidence I want my 9-year-old daughter to have -- the kind of confidence I hope our society will finally embrace. Yet, when Ashley Judd recently mentioned "periods" in a recited poem at the Women's March on Washington, she was called "vulgar," "crass," "gross," and "disturbing." Instead of encouraging acceptance, we somehow keep associating shame with the female body, and that has harsh consequences for the future, for health care, cancer screenings, and childbirth.
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When I first heard about the American Girl doll change, my thought was, That's dumb. I've hated dolls that had built-in or painted-on underwear. When I was a kid in the '80s, dolls with built-in clothing were for toddlers and preschoolers. If you were a doll lover, fully dressing and undressing the doll was an integral part of the fun.
When I told my little girl the news, she took it even harder than I thought she would. "What? Why? They're ruining them!"
I sent a message to American Girl and headed to its Facebook page. Oh, the Facebook page! American Girl fandom was not happy. The complaints from doll collectors and sentimental types involved the lower quality that is implied from sewn-on underwear versus a pair that can go on and off; it looks cheap. Another thread kept popping up, and I felt the need to address it, because it was my immediate question as well. Did this change have to do with modesty? Are there people who complain about immodest dolls?
"We made the decision for a variety of reasons, including consumer research that's shown that having the underwear fixed to the body will make play easier for some and will ensure the underwear is less likely to be lost or need to be replaced," the company wrote in a comment thread on its Facebook page.
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American Girl also denied any relationship between the expansion into new international markets (such as the United Arab Emirates in 2017) and this new inability for American Girl dolls to be fully unclothed. From the Facebook page's comment thread:
"Just to clear up any confusion -- this design change isn't due to our plans to expand internationally. We made the decision for a variety of reasons..."
Finally, American Girl addressed the modesty issue:
"...this change is not about send [sic] any message about a girl's body. After all, we're the authors of The Care and Keeping of You and we're all about empowering girls. We are sorry, however, that you are disappointed..."
The reasons given just simply do not add up. The company states some will find the dolls easier to play with. Seriously? The dolls are designed for ages 8 and up. If American Girl is worried about children with fine motor control, it's hard to believe the underwear is the most difficult accessory related to the doll. The dolls have an assortment of small, manipulatable pieces and articles of clothing. It's not more difficult to put on the underwear than any other piece of clothing. If anything is difficult, it's the doll tights. Have you tried putting tights on a doll? You'd think after years of wrestling with my own Spanx as well as dressing wiggly toddlers, I'd be a pro at dressing a stationary stuffed toy. Those tights are tough!
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The second reason American Girl gave for this change was that with underwear firmly sewn in place, no underwear would be lost and need replacing. This reason is perhaps the most ludicrous of all, considering all the expensive, collectable pieces that AG sells. This is a store full of tiny toys. Small coins, doll necklaces, miniature food, realistic postage stamp–sized paper photos -- this is the stuff American Girl sells.
After the nonsensical reasons from AG, I really have to wonder if this is about modesty after all, despite its denial. And if it is true, that this was done to make the dolls more modest, the tide is rising for a more regressive, less body-positive world for our girls.
American Girl dolls are changing. As AG fans, allies, and loyal shoppers, we expect that. But this change is new ground, a little bizarre, and quite frankly out of character for the American Girl brand.
It should be noted that there are quite a few people who don't care about the change. If their children want to "shower" or "bathe" the dolls in their pricey bathroom setups, their children can just imagine the underwear right off the dolls.
But why not imagine the bathroom set too? American Girl has built its business on realistic doll miniatures and accessories. The details are important. There are lots of kids who are not going to want to put swimsuits over underwear, bathe their dolls in underwear, or have their dolls pretend to go potty right through their underwear.
So what gives, American Girl?
It seems like such a trivial issue, right? Doll underwear. Small, unimportant, no big deal. First world problems, rich kid issues. There is some truth there. There are lots of problems in the world, and a high-priced doll rates pretty low as a priority.
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But the messages our children receive about their bodies are still important. We've worked hard to stop sexualizing girls and their toys, to build body positivity, empowerment, and self-ownership of girls. Covering emphasizes the idea that there is something to hide.
What if it wasn't to make the dolls more modest at all, and maybe American Girl really did think it was improving its product? Whether or not it intended to send the message that girls' bodies are something to hide all the time, even in the bathtub when they are alone -- this is the message that will be received, at least by some girls. That's the message I would have taken away as a girl.
So here's what I'd like to say to American Girl: Whether intended or not, this is a backwards move. There's nothing inherently shameful with girls' bodies. You are inadvertently encouraging girls to think there is something so wrong with their bodies that they need to keep them covered up at all times.
Is this really the message you want to send?
Do girls need to be "helped" to play with their dolls appropriately, or are they capable and smart enough on their own to figure out how to get underwear on their dolls?
Girls have been playing with American Girl dolls since 1986. Are the girls today less capable than the girls who have played with them for the past 31 years? I don't think so.