American Girl garners backlash over book on body image

Conservative parents and pundits threatened boycotts of the doll brand over discussions of gender in 'A Smart Girl's Guide: Body Image'—but others are grateful for the inclusion.

A much-beloved children’s brand has been pulled into the ongoing battle over book censorship.

The book, “A Smart Girl’s Guide: Body Image: How to love yourself, live life to the fullest, and celebrate all kinds of bodies” by the American Girl brand, sparked outrage amongst some parents and conservative outlets, even garnering right-wing calls for a boycott in the midst of the holiday shopping season.

A Smart Girl Guide: Body Image gender dysphoria
Image: American Girl

Released in February 2022, a synopsis of the book reads:

Every girl needs to learn to live comfortably in her own skin, and this book will show the way! In these pages, a girl will find everything she needs to know about loving her unique self, staying confident through her body‘s many changes, and appreciating her body for the life it lets her live… this book is a feel-good reminder that all bodies are worthy of love and respect.

Source: American Girl

Written to promote body acceptance and positivity, the 96-page book includes discussions of puberty, disabled and differently-sized bodies, as well as racism, colorism and beauty standards promoted by both international cultures and social media.

But at issue is the book’s inclusive take on gender issues. This reportedly includes an image of a transgender rights flag as well as a three-page discussion of young people who might identify as non-binary or trans, “including advice on transitioning and information about puberty blocker drugs,” according to the New York Post.

“If you haven’t gone through puberty yet, the doctor might offer medicine to delay your body’s changes, giving you more time to think about your gender identity,” a page of the text explains alongside an illustration of an adolescent speaking with their doctor.

As reported by the NY Post, the discussion of gender also notes that: “The way you show your gender to the world through clothes and behaviors is your gender expression. Your gender expression can be feminine, masculine, or somewhere in between — and it might change! Maybe you’ll experiment with bright dresses and long, feminine hairstyles. Or you might try baggy shorts, plaid shirts, and a buzzed haircut. Your gender expression should make you feel at home in your body.”

For some, the trusted doll brand’s detour from heteronormativity proved a bridge too far. 

“Incredibly disappointed in your book ‘Body Image,’” tweeted one mother (h/t NY Post). “Let these little girls be little girls. Stop the disgusting push to introduce topics too mature. It is NOT your place.” 

Others, like conservative podcast host Allie Beth Stuckey, called for a boycott of the brand. 

“Gone are the days when American Girl taught girls about history and femininity. Now they’re encouraging our daughters to hate their bodies, halt their puberty, & cut off their breasts in the name of ‘self-love,” Stuckey tweeted, urging parents to “Return [their] AG Christmas gifts asap.”

The release is not American Girl’s first foray into discussing body issues. The brand’s 1998 release, “The Care and Keeping of YOU: The Body Book for Younger Girls,” became a New York Times bestseller. Re-released in 2012, the book, which explores topics including first menstruation and breast development, inspired a sequel for older girls in 2013.

By that metric, a volume reflecting current popular discourse isn’t an anomaly for the American Girl brand, which has neither issued a comment nor an apology for “A Smart Girl’s Guide: Body Image.”

According to MEA WorldWide, the book’s author, American Girl Content Development Editor Mel Hammond, who also wrote the brand’s titles “Love The Earth, Understanding climate change, speaking up for solutions, and living an earth-friendly life” and “Pets, Getting Them, Caring for Them, and Loving Them,” may have responded to the controversy via social media. (Hammond’s Instagram account is currently private.)

“This book helps kids learn to love themselves, appreciate the amazing things their bodies can do, and treat all types of bodies with respect,” Hammond reportedly wrote, adding, “It’s a book I would’ve loved to read as a kid!” 

Some parents seem to agree. Amid hundreds of negative comments on the American Girl site are reviews from parents who approve of the book’s progressive and comprehensive stance on gender dysphoria.

“Absolutely love this book,” wrote one commenter, in part. “Whether you agree with the idea of transitioning, or identifying with a different sex than what you were born with, I think this book does a great job of defining these terms and explaining the process, which in turn helps to create a more loving and empathetic world…I think educating your children on all topics helps to create a generation more understanding of the world around them, which will help diminish the hate this world seems to be full of.”

“So many people making reviews that have NEVER PURCHASED THE BOOK!” another commenter wrote, adding: “No book forces a child to be ANYWAY (sic). A person is born HOW THEY ARE. does reading Clifford the big red dog tell your child that dogs talk and go on adventures? Or fairy tales of mermaids? The book is to be used as a reference and to help TALK about things. Parents are THE PARENTS…This book is great for those who NEED IT and those who don’t! It will help others support those going through things. Thanks for always making great books!!”

Whether a majority of parents agree American Girl is the appropriate source to initiate these conversations, there is evidence to support its inclusive position on gender.

“Studies show that transgender and nonbinary kids who get help from doctors have much better mental health than those who don’t,” reads a quote from the book (h/t Daily Mail).

A February 2022 study republished by the National Institute of Health corroborates this, reporting that “gender-affirming medical interventions were associated with lower odds of depression and suicidality over 12 months.” 

Arguably, American Girl’s attempt to be inclusive has caused many to miss the larger message of “A Smart Girl’s Guide: Body Image,” which is exemplified by another quote from the book.

“You can appreciate your body for everything it allows you to experience and still want to change certain things about it,” it reads. “Parts of your body may make you feel uncomfortable and you may want to change the way you look. … ‘That’s totally OK!”

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