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Perspective: How American Girl lost this American mother

Taking sides in a political battle is never good for a brand, especially when children are involved

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Customers shop for dolls at the American Girl Place store at The Grove shopping mall in Los Angeles.

Customers shop for dolls at the American Girl Place store at The Grove shopping mall in Los Angeles on Friday, Nov. 23, 2007.

Damian Dovarganes, Associated Press

Before this week, my biggest gripe with the American Girl brand as a mother was that it’s impossible to find box sets of their classic books and that the dolls are exceedingly expensive, with new ones selling for around $100.

Women of my generation grew up reading the books and coveting the dolls. They were one of those treasured memories that many of us were excited to share with our own girls one day. This week, the trust that American mothers had in the brand took a shattering blow. 

On Tuesday, the U.K.’s Daily Mail reported on an American Girl book called “Body Image,” which purports to teach children “How to love yourself, live life to the fullest, and celebrate all kinds of bodies.”

A passage in the book — marketed to girls as young as 10 — advises: “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.”

The book also provides a list of resources for organizations children can turn to “if you don’t have an adult you trust.”

According to the Daily Mail, this latest move aligns with other trends at the brand’s parent company: “Earlier this year, its parent company Mattel, recently put a transgender Barbie doll on the market. … The company has yet to comment on the contentious content.” 

In the book on body image, growing girls are told that “if you’re transgender or non-binary, loving your body might feel a bit different than it does for a cisgender person. Parts of your body might make you feel uncomfortable, and you might want to change the way you look. That’s totally OK!” 

Gone are the days that girls are told that they and their bodies are perfect just the way they are. Now girls are told that if they aren’t happy with their appearance (and what prepubescent girl is?), they can easily alter it and take prescription drugs to put off puberty, the thing making them feel so uncomfortable in their own skin.

Puberty blockers are billed as just a benign pause button, but increasingly we’re learning there’s no such thing. In October of last year, author Abigail Shrier wrote:

“They said it was perfectly safe to give children as young as 9 puberty blockers and insisted that the effects of those blockers were ‘fully reversible.’ They said that it was the job of medical professionals to help minors to transition. They said it was not their job to question the wisdom of transitioning, and that anyone who did — including parents — was probably transphobic. They said that any worries about a social contagion among teen girls was nonsense. And they never said anything about the distinct possibility that blocking puberty, coupled with cross-sex hormones, could inhibit a normal sex life.”

But now some providers of transgender medicine are questioning whether the field has gone too far — whether, as Dr. Marci Bowers said, “maybe we zigged a little too far to the left in some cases.”

Some people who received gender-affirming treatment are seeking legal redress for harm, as in the case of Keira Bell, the U.K. woman whose accusations contributed to London’s Tavistock Centre shutting down. And The New York Times reported last month that “there is emerging evidence of potential harm from using (puberty) blockers, according to reviews of scientific papers and interviews with more than 50 doctors and academic experts around the world.”

Not surprisingly, Americans are increasingly uncomfortable about gender activism directed at children. According to the 2022 American Family Survey, only 35% of respondents believe parents should be permitted to obtain “gender-affirming medical care” for children. And disapproval of “gender-affirming medical care” is highest among conservative parents, with 75% in favor of banning gender-affirming treatment for children. And it’s important to note that, by and large, more conservatives than liberals are having children today, according to a recent survey.

In 2010, 65% of Republicans in their late 30s were parents, compared to 62% of Democrats. Ten years later, 60% of Republicans in their late 30s were parents, compared to 50% of Democrats. If your market is American parents, companies should probably keep in mind that their potential customers are increasingly skewing more conservative.

Taking sides in political battles, especially those involving children, their sexuality and their health, is never a wise idea for a brand, but it’s becoming especially untenable in the changing political landscape of American parenthood. American Doll has spent decades building trust among a key consumer base. With just a few pages of a paperback book, they have squandered it. 

The revelations, coming right at the height of the holiday shopping season, could not be more poorly timed for the company. American Doll (and Mattel) now have a choice: they can stake their position and risk the financial backlash, or they can try to regain some of the trust they’ve lost. In the coming days the company’s response to the outrage will reveal its decision. And then American parents can shop accordingly. 

Bethany Mandel is a contributing writer for Deseret News. She is a home-schooling mother of five and a widely published writer on politics, culture and Judaism. She is an editor for the children’s book series “Heroes of Liberty.”