by LISA CAPOBIANCO
Natick Mall, 1245 Worcester St., Natick, Mass.—it is the place to be for any American girl and her doll.
“Whoa,” I said in shock as I stepped inside the store for the first time with a college friend I was visiting for the day. “This place is unbelievable.”
I could not even imagine what stood right in front of me: the clothes, the fitting room, the American Girl Bistro where girls can dine with their best porcelain friends. The place even had a hair salon where dolls can get a haircut or new ‘do!
For girls who love dolls (like myself), this place is paradise. Although I never had an American Girl doll growing up, I always longed for one as I browsed through the catalogue that came in the mail once a year.
As I looked around me, it seemed like every girl who entered the two-story building was having fun—whether finding an outfit to match their doll or searching for new accessories for their doll.
Walking through the first floor of the store, I was amazed (and even impressed) that the dolls had their own unique style, facial features, and story. Made for girls ages 8 and up, about eight of the dolls are “BeForever” dolls, timeless characters like Samantha, Addy, and Caroline, who each had inspiring stories from important times in American history (i.e. The Great Depression). Every year, American Girl also introduces a character from today’s world, a “Girl of the Year.”
“This is amazing,” I thought to myself as I recalled reading about each doll’s background story. “It’s teaching young girls not only to appreciate history but also to understand different backgrounds of those who have struggled in America.”
Yet as I started to learn more about the American Girl store and its “special services” for girls and their dolls, I started to question the kind of message the popular destination was sending. From personal shopping staff to merchandise shipments to even doll hospital admissions (you heard that one right), American Girl offers a variety of special services for girls and their dolls. In the hair salon, dolls not only have an opportunity to sport a new ‘do, but they also have the advantage of getting their ears pierced, along with a “spa deluxe package” (which includes a soft scrub and a pampering set).
“I am never bringing my daughter here if I have one,” my friend said as she looked around the store. “This place is creepy.”
After browsing the store for 15 minutes, my friend and I decided to leave, and let me just say this: I did not leave the store the same way I came in. One thing is certain: the American Girl store allows girls to be creative with their dolls, giving them an opportunity to build upon the story that each doll was marketed with.
But another thing is certain (based on my observations): the store affirms society’s expectations of how a girl should look and dress, and what her interests “should be.” Although each American Girl doll has their own style, most (if not all) of them are dressed in a “girly” fashion and appear flawless. The fact that there is even a “doll hospital” says something about the way society teaches girls early on about how they should look. It is one thing if a doll’s head accidentally comes off and needs repair, but to promote the concept of “surgery” to an 8-year-old girl can send the wrong message.
“Doll doctors will make her as good as new and send her back ready to be loved for years and years,” says the online description of the American Girl Doll Hospital.
“A team of doll doctors will examine her from head to toe and decide on a treatment to fix her ‘injuries’—everything from hair brushing to limb tightening to major surgery.”
Shouldn’t the doll be loved regardless of what happens to her physically? Shouldn’t a girl still love herself regardless of a red bump on her head or a scar on her leg? Some of these special services offered are not teaching girls the value of embracing their identity for what it is.
Also, as I was browsing through the accessories girls can buy for their dolls online, I noticed there was a variety of them: purses and jewelry, baking sets, bicycles, instrument sets, table sets, and more. Yet under the category of “sports and hobbies,” I noticed that swim, skating and skiing gear and camping sets were included, but other athletic accessories such as basketballs, tennis rackets, and softball bats, were not. What kind of message does this send to young girls?
Reflecting back on my own childhood, playing with dolls was never a doubt in my mind. I had just about every Barbie for any theme of “play” I wanted to explore, from Sleepover Barbie to Florida Barbie to Doctor Barbie. Trying a sport or even playing with LEGOS never crossed my mind at a young age because I knew those were interests of boys, not girls. I questioned my own ability to even hit a ball successfully because playing with dolls from the moment I was physically capable of doing so was all I ever really knew. But sometimes I wonder: if one of my Barbies came with a volleyball set or even a mini LEGO set, would I have explored other interests or hobbies?
Dolls are exquisite, timeless, and beautiful. They should be embraced for who they are from the moment they are made and distributed. But like girls, they too, should be allowed to explore other interests. Imagine the positive message an American “Robotics” Girl would send to an 8-year-old girl still figuring out what she enjoys doing in her free time.
Lisa Capobianco is a staff writer for The Observer.