Take Up Space

If I had a dollar for every time I have been told I am too forward, too intimidating, too bitchy, too aggressive, too you-fill-in-the-blank I could retire. The thing is, aside from being aggressive when playing sports I am none of those things. Confidence in women is too often reduced to bitchiness. I’m actually pretty nice. I was taught to take up space in this world so I do just that, but because I am a woman it makes people uncomfortable. Their uncomfortableness is none of my business.

I don’t apologize when I ask a question or make a statement. I don’t laugh at the end of statements, either, just in case what I said was too strong and the words need to be softened. I have a right to my thoughts and expressing them. I like to win. I like to be the best, to make money, to yell at my football team during the fourth quarter during a goal line stand. I don’t excuse the meals I eat and when I’m still hungry yes I will eat dessert. I workout to keep my body strong not to punish it for processing calories. I sweat when I workout, dripping sweat and heaving chest because I go big or go home. I don’t not apologize for the space I take up in this world. I have every right to it.

I am teaching my daughter to be these things, because in between painting our toes and playing mermaids and doing glittery art projects we talk about business and economics and tarantulas and how to use our voices. We discuss politics and take out maps and plan adventures around the globe. I will not teach her to shrink, to speak meekly, to not eat pizza when she is hungry.

She will take up space in this world.

Someone once said to me that my parents raised me like a boy, like my brothers. No. My parents raised me to be a woman who is not afraid to be a woman.

Take. Up. Space.

Should – Guest Post by Cammy Nelson

“Should” – A Guest Post by Cammy Nelson

“Should” is a powerful little word that has drained more energy, caused more stress and produced even more frustration than I want to think about for as long as I can remember.  I should do well in school, I should be a good friend, I should always be happy, I should make everyone around me happy, I should be the leader, I should get as involved as I could, I should make a difference NOW, I should, I should, I SHOULD. The word seemed to come at me from every area of my life: school, family, organizations, sports, and even myself. Then, a whole new level of should’s came at me. These were much worse and much more frustrating…

These shoulds told me that I should wear makeup, I should lose weight, I should go on a diet, I should have a boyfriend, I should hate my body, I shouldn’t speak up in class, I should always be nice, I should eat less, I should have perfect teeth, I should be popular, I should be PERFECT.  These should’s were trying to make me believe that I wasn’t good enough and I needed to “fix” the things that could be changed.

Well, I’m here to tell you a little something about that heavy “should” word – it’s just a word.  When I was in middle school, I would have loved it if someone had said to me “you can ignore that word, and any word, that makes you feel like you’re not good enough or that you need to be something you’re not.” The negativity surrounding me was horribly draining for me, and it still is for many girls.  THAT is what really needed to change.

For every girl who feels like she has a constantly growing list of “should’s” that need to be followed, I’ve created something better for you.  If I could hand my 12-year-old self a list of “should’s”, this is what it would look like…

  • You should be YOU. Exactly who you are right now. That girl is AWESOME and I want to see the rock star that she is.
  • You should do and wear whatever makes you feel confident!
  • You should write your own definition of beautiful. Make it whatever you believe real beauty looks like, sounds like, and acts like.
  • You should not be afraid of your bright light. Do not play small for anyone – that only hurts you.
  • You should learn about you and discover what you are passionate about.
  • You should be quiet if you need time alone to think, process, and develop ideas.
  • You should speak up when you want to share your voice, speak your mind, ask a question, share your dreams, help a friend, laugh… or whenever you want.
  • You should learn about the advertising you see every day. The reality behind it will shock you.
  • You should be a leader be a leader sometimes and a follower every now an then. You will not and do not need to know the answer at all times. Give yourself room to grow and learn.
  • You should do YOUR best. That’s the greatest strength you will ever feel.
  • You should never hide your intelligence. Smart girls are AWESOME!!!
  • You should be a good friend to those who are a good friend to you.
  • You should always believe in yourself – with confidence as your wings, you will fly higher than you can imagine.
  • You should learn about your body. Understand it, listen to it, take care of it, and love it. Your body carries you through life and will be there through all the amazing experiences you will have.
  • You should take it one day at a time. Things will seem overwhelming from time to time, but remember that the future comes one day at a time.
  • You should forge your own path, follow your dreams, and always, ALWAYS know that YOU ARE ENOUGH! You are everything you will become and you have it within you to make all of your dreams a reality.

 

To the brave girls reading this, you get to start making decisions for yourself now. You get to decide who you want to be, what’s important to you, and how you will get to where to want to be. Listening to the “should’s” of life will only hold you back. Spend your time thinking of the amazing experiences you will fill your life with, the people you want to surround you, and the dreams you have for the world. Try new things, make new friends, and step outside your comfort zone.  Ignore the negativity that comes your way and remember, the only thing that will ever really matter is that you are being you.

Cammy Nelson

 

 

Cammy Nelson is a speaker on girls, goals, and personal power. After spending nearly her entire life speaking on self-esteem and the media, Cammy is committed to creating change for girls through her inspiring message of empowerment and leadership. For more information on Cammy and her mission, visit www.givegirlsmore.weebly.com.

Barbie in a Bucket

“Mom, how big is my waist? Like how big around?” asked my 7yo daughter, Amelia, this morning while getting ready for school.

“It looks like it is seven years old big, just right for holding in your muscles, liver, stomach, intestines…” I answer, wondering where she is going with this.

“No, I mean how big around. See how it goes in like Barbie’s does? Friend has a really small waist, too. She says she is happy because she is light as a feather.”

This? This is the pestilence that sneaks in. No matter how vigilant or media literate you are with your family, this is what comes in through media and culture and peers and family and there is truly nothing you can do to stop it.

But you can reframe it.

“Smalls, your waist is exactly the size it should be for your body. Barbie is a toy but if she were real, she would be a very sick human and her waist would be too small to hold up her upper body. Sometimes people’s waists curve in and sometimes they don’t. Friend does have a small waist, because she is petite. Everything on her is small, even her fingers and her teeth. That is how her body was made, and your body is different but it is just perfect for being you. And Friend isn’t light as a feather, Friend is probably 45 pounds, which is healthy for a person her size.”

“Well, I know all that. Did you know that caterpillars hunt in armies?”

We do own a few Barbies, the Sea World Trainer and a few of the mermaids. They have proven to be good teaching tools and conversation starters, but we have definitely limited their existence (and importance) in our home and we haven’t allowed other fashion dolls in. Our Barbies reside in our bath toy bucket, and Amelia plays with them once a week or so. The rest of the time she is playing with toys focused on science and nature, or she is playing outside in her mad scientist lab.

My husband and I want Amelia focused on:
1. What her body can do, over what her body looks like.

2. Developing her sense of curiosity, adventure, reasoning and imagination; over focusing solely on her sense of style and fashion, which is what is primarily marketed to girls.

3. Developing her own definition of beauty, and having it be as varied and inclusive as possible.

 

This is what our Barbies look like at our house.

So we keep our Barbies in a bucket. The pressure Amelia will experience to conform to beauty norms as she grows into a young woman will be intense. It is everywhere. We try to inoculate her from them as much as we possibly can, educating her on the industry of beauty and how it is harmful and unfair to women. When she is a little older, I’ll probably share with her this funny limerick my husband wrote for me the other day. He had helped Amelia with her bath during which they had a conversation about Barbies and beautiful women…..

There once was a girl named for the queen of the sky,

Always a rascal with a gleam in her eye.

She grew up awesome, smart and strong,

but the creep of beauty messages didn’t take long,

and she would remember the words of her mom and say “F*ck it”.

The Indoctrination of Little Girls

Before you comment on this post, I want you to see the forest through the trees. This single link encapsulates everything we are fighting for in one screen shot.

Here’s what I want you focused on:
-Celebrity endorsement of the sexualization of girls.

-Sexy adult swimwear (totally okay) being made into miniature versions for children as young as four (totally not okay)

-Does this child look happy? Is she doing the things a preschooler naturally does? Or is she being encouraged to act like a very small adult? Pay special attention to what the child is doing in the ad: she is wearing a bikini that for an adult woman would be considered sexy, sitting still and paging through a fashion magazine, she looks to be four or five.

-What do we know about fashion magazines and their direct impact on women’s body image? Does that magically not affect children?

-We see swimwear that is so skimpy a child cannot splay, play, or swim without having to be concerned about constantly readjusting her suit to stay covered. This specific kind of swimsuit limits how a child can experience playing in the water/beach and reinforces the message it is more important what your body looks like to others than what you can do with it.
Read: It teaches girls to sit still and be pretty rather than taking up space in this world.

-The side bar of this link: Is everything that is wrong with how society values women. Granted that we should consider the source, but this page isn’t an aberration, rather it is a microcosm of the constant evaluation and picking apart of women’s bodies. Not something we want our young daughters to be thinking about while trying to keep on a skimpy bikini initially made and cut to make adult female bodies look smoking hot on a beach or poolside. Why are we rushing these very little girls into  womanhood, and a negative side of it at that?

Advertisement on Paltrow's goop site, via UK Daily Mail

 

We don’t need to argue about some bikinis being okay for girls because certainly there are age appropriate options and those are fine. Yes, bikinis make going to the bathroom easier, that is all fine and good. But we really need to think about what messages our girls are getting, from who, and why. If you don’t agree with those message, I encourage you to speak up. And if you value your daughter’s developing body image, I suggest you take a firm stance with the “I’m not buying into it” mentality. Have it become your mantra, because are daughters are worth so much more than what we see here.

Focusing on the goop advert at top, what are we indoctrinating our little girls into when we also look to the right? Is this type of coverage specific to the DailyMail Online, or is this everywhere?

Girls Gone Hiking

Amelia and I went hiking in the woods the other day. We were familiar with part of the trail but we started our walk from a different trail head so when we approached the wooden bridge she likes to play on, she didn’t recognize it.
“That’s because you are approaching it from a different angle. It is like having new eyes,” I said to her.

When we were done throwing rocks into the creek we crossed the bridge and looked at a fork in the trail.
“Which way, Smalls?” I asked her, letting her be in charge of our expedition.
“Well, that way goes back to the other bridge, right? So where does that way go?” -Amelia
“I have a general idea but I have never been that way before. You don’t always have to know where you are going, you just have to remember where you started from.” -Me
“So then obviously that is our choice,” says Amelia, as she picks up her walking stick and heads down the new trail.
“Hey Smalls, where are you going?” I ask a few moments later as she veers off the trail onto a toe path that leads into the woods.
“Mom, there’s adventure, and then there’s ADVENTURE! Don’t worry, I have my adventure pack.” -Amelia

I can’t shelter her from all of the negative messages from the media and from marketers, but I can give her experiences that reaffirm she is smart, daring, and adventurous. I can show her how her body is strong, and how to take up space in this world. I can teach her that there are more important things in life than looking pretty. I can model for her how to redefine girly. I can help her shape her personal brand.  That way, when the marketers come with their toxic ads, insecurities, and sexist products, my little girl can look them dead in the eye and say, “Yeah, that really doesn’t work for me” and continue on down her own path.

Amelia exploring in the woods. She is standing on a little island in the creek we reached by crossing over an old door acting as a foot bridge.

What My Radio Flyer Wagon Has To Do With My Body Image

My family has just returned from our first real vacation — a trip to sunny Florida to spend an amazing week with my parents and brothers and their families in a big house by the beach. It was a perfect vacation….that ended at 2am on Monday morning when we pulled into our driveway after the long drive home to snowy Wisconsin. I was reminded of this as I was driving to my doctor’s appointment this morning as an unidentified rattling squeak coming from the far back of my minivan was interrupting my singing with the radio and really annoying me.

Then I remembered that we had been too tired to finish unpacking the car and had left the Radio Flyer wagon in the far back of the van. I made a mental note to lug it out later. This morning I was going back to my doctor because after finally being diagnosed with a rare endocrine problem, I had gained 23 pounds in 10 weeks from the steroid medication I had been put on to control it. My doctor and I were going to come up with a new plan for treatment. But this wagon constantly rattling in the back was really putting a damper on my singing with Kelly Clarkson while I made my way across town….

Then I had a little epiphany as I drove: That wagon in the back of my van was like my extra pounds. Rattling around and being obnoxious and there for no good reason, but the wagon being there didn’t affect the efficiency or value of the van. I didn’t love the extra weight, but I did still love me. My value had not changed. Whether the weight was there or not there, my worth remained unchanged. Body image is about loving yourself, even if you don’t always love where you’re at. A good friend taught me that.

My mom had noticed the moon face, it appeared four weeks after starting the new pills and completely changed how my face usually looks. My husband noticed the much bigger boobs and that I had put away all of my jeans and was wearing yoga pants all of the time. My kids noticed that I was “getting big and cushy”, and suggested I watch a weight loss commercial they had seen. Amelia said she loved me no matter what. My four year old asked where my muscles went. We talked about how the medicine was changing my body and that my doctor was going to help me be as healthy as possible. We talked about health being about what goes on on the inside of your body and doesn’t usually have anything to do with how big or small or in-between a person is.

The extra weight scared me because heart disease and diabetes run in my family and I wondered if it was a symptom of something more serious. I could deal with the weight if I had to, but I didn’t want to jeopardize my health. As someone who is usually active and fit, I didn’t like the feel of my current body. These extra 23 pounds….and right before the trip to the Florida beach…..I would not be honest if I said it didn’t bother me just a little. I was anxious about seeing what I would look like in vacation photos. My family is spread across the globe (my brothers live in Madagascar and Costa Rica, so complete family photos don’t happen often and have to last for years). Our first big family vacation, and I was at my heaviest weight I had ever been in my life. My face didn’t look normal and I was puffy everywhere. But I bought a new swim suit and said hell with it, I was going to have a blast on vacation because I’ve been working myself to the bone for nearly four years and I deserved a week off with the kids and my husband. The only person who cared about what I looked like was me, and I wasn’t going to let this get in the way of all of the fun and the memories we were about to make.

During these weeks while I could feel my weight going up, not once did I complain about it in front of my children or sigh in the mirror or talk about “looking fat” with the other moms after school in earshot of the kids. I confided in a couple of friends and my husband, but not a word of Fat Talk was uttered in front of my kids. I was adamant about that. Through all of this, I loved myself and that is what my kids saw. I was bothered by my face not looking “right” and my clothes not feeling comfortable, but not one of these extra pounds changed how I valued myself. At the risk of sounding incredibly arrogant, I love me. I adore me. I really, truly do. I think I am fantastic. Full of awesome. Even if I have an extra 23 pounds right now. My weight is not my worth.

So I don’t love my extra weight, none of my clothes fit, and I don’t feel strong or healthy right now.  My doctor agreed this morning we needed to switch medications immediately, and assured me the weight would slide right off once the steroids were out of my system. She promised the moon face would go away within a couple of weeks. And she confirmed that my immediate health was not in danger from the extra weight or medication switch and that we would just watch my liver carefully.  You only have one liver, which always helps with perspective when you need it.

So taking the wagon out of the van will be easy enough this afternoon, and then I’ll have my Nissan Quest back with stereo rocking and me signing *just like* Kelly Clarkson and P!nk.

So it will go getting my healthy body and comfortable weight back. I’m still the same on the inside, the outside will change a little, and I’ll still be rocking.

And the same will be true tomorrow night when my daughter’s school holds a Family Fun Night — I’ll put on my swim suit and not care that I am one of two moms in the pool while the rest of the moms sit along the edge and talk about the weight they need to lose, like they did last year instead of having fun in the pool. I’m up for a cannonball or two. And I’ll dance with the kids in front of the DJ because who can hear “Party Rock Anthem” and not start jamming?

23 extra pounds or not, this girl likes to party. So here’s pictures of me from vacation, at my heaviest weight ever and a big ol’ moon face and…..HAVING AN AWESOME TIME. My kids are not going to remember what I looked like. They are going to remember the fun we had. Who wants to miss out on that? Not me.

These photos are going to be seen by a couple thousand people. They are not the best photos of me, but I’m willing to make myself vulnerable if another mom out there feels more comfortable about her imperfect body because she read about and saw my imperfect body and decides to join me in saying “The Hell With It!” and looks forward to having fun with her kids. A little self love can go a long, long way.

What I wish moms everywhere could know is that your kids are not going to remember how thin or fat or in-between you were, they will remember how fun you were. Don’t miss out on that, no matter what the scale or tag inside your jeans say. We only get one shot at this, don’t miss the party.

 

Me, my niece, Amelia, and Ben at Clearwater Marine Aquarium in front of Winter's tank. If a dolphin with no tail can feel good about herself, then I can get over a little moon face.

 

My family dressed up and prepared to go on a night-time hunt for buried treasure on the beach after Amelia found a treasure map "hidden" in our rental house. It was so much fun!!

My husband, children and I on the beach in Florida. Medication has caused me to be the heaviest I have ever been. I don't love this photo of myself, but I do love myself. My weight will be changing significantly with a change in medication, but my self worth remains unchanged. We had a great day on the beach, which is what my kids and I will remember 20 years from now.

 

Go Look In the Mirror, After You Tell Me How You Feel You Look

This morning while getting dressed for school, the almost-seven year old Amelia rejected the t-shirt I had grabbed for her to go with her leggings and fleece jacket. It surprised me because it was the Clearwater Marine Aquarium tee with two dolphins on it, her favorite animal.

“Mom, I don’t feel comfortable in this t-shirt.”

It was the first time she had ever said anything like that to me, and I could tell this wasn’t because of an itchy tag or the shirt not fitting right.

“What about it makes it feel not comfortable to you?”

“Well, it feels like a paint shirt. Can I have one that fits closer?” Amelia is a tall and thin kid, and the shirt was boxy on her. She usually wears contoured tees so she isn’t swimming in them.

“I grabbed this one because it was a little longer, so it looked more like a tunic over your leggings. Your leggings are tight, so I would like your bum covered. But I would also like you to feel comfortable in your t-shirt. What should we do?”

“Wellll, when my fleece is on my bum is covered. I would just like a shirt that isn’t so bunchy.”

So I hunt down two different tees while she brushes her teeth, she picks one that is more contoured (a blue one with baleen whales on it) and covers her bum, puts on her jacket, smooths her hand over her tummy, does a full body wiggle and declares, “Now that’s more like it, Alice.”  (My name is not Alice.)

I wrapped her up in a big hug and said she looked ready to be a learning girl today and that we needed to brush her hair. Then I asked how she felt in her new t-shirt and how she thought she looked. She replied, “Full of awesome, Baby!”

It was only then that I told her to go take a once over in the mirror. I want her to practice feeling confidence in the image she projects, instead of the mirror telling her that answer. The mirror is just to make sure she doesn’t have pumpkin bread crumbs on her chin. The mirror provides a reflection. Her heart will provide confidence.

I glance at Amelia looking at herself in the mirror. She was standing with her feet apart, bouncing on her toes, giving herself two thumbs up and wiggling her eyebrows at herself. Her hair looked like a squirrel was living it, but I could tell she felt very full of awesome.

And then I realized I had been holding my breath. When she had said she wasn’t comfortable in her shirt, I immediately made a mental note of the words she chose and was internally grateful she had not said that she looked “fat” or “ugly”. I would be crushed if she said that about herself. She doesn’t hear her parents use those words nor do we use media that reinforces the Beauty Myth and Thin Ideal. She brought home a book from her school library yesterday that had Ariel, Disney’s Little Mermaid on it. Ariel’s waist is thinner than her arm on the cover.

“Motherbumping Disney princesses” I muttered in my head when she took it out of her backpack. I wondered if her school library also had children’s books on eating disorders and body dysmorphic disorder? But when Amelia was showing the books to her little brother Benny, she informed him that Ariel’s “tummy was way too small” and the artist had drawn her wrong. Later that evening following Girl Scouts, Amelia had been sitting at the table drawing pictures of mermaids for me and all of their waists were in proportion to their heads. Phew!

But then she made the comment this morning about not feeling uncomfortable in her shirt! Egads! Was is starting? Was she beginning to doubt herself and her body image? She’s not even seven! I was telling myself to stop overreacting as I could feel myself overreacting. I made her body from scratch, it took forever to get pregnant with her and then I puked for nine months. It took so much of my body to create her body, I wanted her to know every day how glorious her body and life are. I want her to love and cherish herself as much as her dad and I do. I want that kind of self love for all girls.

So on the walk to school, I checked in with her to see how the t-shirt was feeling.

“How we doing, Smalls? How’s the t-shirt feel under all those layers?”

“Oh, good. I was worried that other one might lead to a flea infestation.”

Yep, we’re all good here. Just normal, super quirky Amelia whose positive body image is well intact.

Water Slides and Body Image

I wrote this on Saturday before heading to a birthday party for a good buddy of my kids. Happy to report, we all had a blast:

We’re headed to a swim birthday party this afternoon, which means I have to be in my swimsuit helping the kids in the pool. Normally this wouldn’t be a big issue for me, but a recent health issue has made me gain some weight despite a day to day healthy lifestyle. This is hard for me because I’ve always been athletic and fit and my own body doesn’t feel “right” to me right now.
But I never considered not getting in the pool with the kids, or hiding myself under a t-shirt. I plan to “Whooop!” when I go down the water slide. Because while my kids know I have to wear a special bracelet now and take medicine and work hard at getting my body strong and healthy again, they’ll never see me ashamed of my body.
The message me and my extra 20 pounds will be giving my daughter and my son and the two little friends we are taking the to the party is that it is not how your body looks that is important, but rather how you choose to live in it and what you choose to do with it that makes you full of awesome.

Two Worlds of Doll Shopping

I had an interesting experience this weekend while I shopped for the 18 inch doll that the OPP wants for Christmas. First, the obvious stuff like there were no boy dolls, most everything was pink and in the designated ‘girl’ aisles, and at one store all of the dolls were blonde haired and blue-eyed. I was looking for a doll with olive skin, black hair and brown eyes to look like the OPP who looks like her partial Lebanese heritage. The OPP has outgrown her handmade dolls, and wants one of these “big girl” dolls very badly.

But what really struck me was the feeling I got as I looked at the dolls (similar to American Girl except in price), with sweet makeup-free faces and cute, age-appropriate clothing and great story lines behind them. I felt nostalgic for my baby dolls from when I was a girl, and all of the adventures I took them on like 1840′s frontier school house or rescuing them from a sinking cruise ship and living on a deserted island. The doll I was looking at for the OPP just felt like a perfect fit for my almost-seven-year-old and seemed like she would become a great pal for the OPP during her girlhood.

And then I turned the corner to the dolls that don’t look like little girls. The dolls with impossibly thin bodies and giant heads and breasts, dressed in skimpy clothing and heavy make up and sexually fetishized footwear, and I sucked my breath in. I saw a little girl, maybe eight or nine, dressed like a small woman in a tight shirt and short skirt and heeled shoes, drooling over these dolls. Toys are media, and media is a diet. I wondered what this little girl had been taking in, silently hoping not all of it was toxic. I hoped she was getting messages or was involved in activities that counteracted the awfulness comprised in these sexualized dolls. One doll and one outfit certainly doesn’t make nor undo a girl, but a girlhood full of those messages is harmful.

Those are not messages that I accept for my child.

It disturbs me when parents opt into this problem by purchasing the toys and clothing that carry those harmful messages. Sexualization is a pestilent beast.

I looked down at the doll I was about to purchase, and the little travel suitcase and passport accessory, and was content knowing that this doll, the story that came with her (an animal and marine lover who wants to travel to South Africa), and the way she looked represented the messages I want my little girl growing up with and internalizing.

The day may come when Amelia wants to wear revealing clothing and chase romantic interests or go out partying. I did when I was a young adult in college. But not when I was almost-seven-years-old.

I want my little girl to be six going on seven. I don’t need her rushing into young adulthood, and all the pitfalls it can bring if you aren’t ready for it and don’t have a sense of who you are.

Six going on seven. The rest will come, or not, in time. But it is these days of her girlhood I find so precious in this space, in this time.

 

The Journey Girl I purchased for Amelia, the 6yo OPP.

The Monster High doll the 8yo girl in the aisle with me was looking at.

Meeting With Mattel about Monster High

In early September I flew to Los Angeles to Mattel’s corporate headquarters to take part in round table discussion called an “influencer meeting”. At the invitation of Jess Weiner, an independent consultant who excels at creating positive media from the inside of corporations by bringing advocates for girls and women into the boardroom, I joined the team from Mattel and Whitney Smith (founder of Girls for a Change) to discuss issues parents and girl advocates had with the Monster High brand and where we saw room for improvement.

I was very excited for this meeting, but as a known adversary of the Monster High brand, I was a little unsure of what I’d be walking into. Never the less, it was a spot at the table I wanted badly. One, to have my voice heard by decision makers within the company, and two, the idea of meeting face to face with the creators of this brand fascinated me. We were coming into the meeting from very different starting points, but I felt confident we would be able to reach some middle ground. One month later, the feedback from the meeting is excellent, and I think the conversation was beneficial for all involved.

I’ve been asked many times to petition or boycott Mattel over this sexualized line of dolls primarily beloved by grade school girls, but I never felt that was the right approach for this issue or this company. Frankly, Monster High was too popular and making Mattel too much money for a petition or boycott to be effective. I needed a way to create change from within, by making the decision makers aware of the issues in the media and culture that our girls are facing, and how their product might be contributing to these negative messages as opposed to helping by presenting an alternative message. Not only did I need to make them aware of the issues, I needed to make them care about the issues. Luckily my partner at the meeting, Whitney Smith, lives and breathes the idea of creating better media for girls, and I am so grateful that our paths crossed.

At this influencer meeting was the vice president of the Monster High brand within Mattel, Mattel’s child psychologist, Mattel’s lead designer and one of the creators of Monster High, and then several public relations and marketing people. Jess Weiner facilitated the discussion while Whitney Smith and I presented the Mattel team with ideas and constructive criticism. The meeting began with friendly introductions and a history of how Monster High came to be at Mattel.

Two interesting facts to me were that the majority of the people in the room are parents of young children, answering the question my community has long wondered if it was parents who were designing these toys for other people’s children. The other fact was that the Mattel team is very proud of their work, their brand, and their company. Each of them has been with Mattel for a number of years, and was very happy to be working there.

As the story was related to us, Monster High began as a series of stories and doodles created by Mattel after a research shopping trip with girls. The story and characters finally came together after several rounds of drafts, with the intent that a group of fabulous teen monsters could address problems like bullying and accepting differences in oneself and others. The initial design concepts went through several revamps, and ultimately Mattel launched the webisodes, and then the toy line and spin off merchandise followed.

The Mattel team in the room was clearly proud of Monster High and the connection it had made with fans. They all expressed confidence that Monster High was helping to create awareness and kindness in girls, acceptance of differences, and was helping to detract from bullying. More on that in a minute.

Post launch, Mattel acknowledged merit to some feedback that a few of the character’s outfits were too short or too sexy, and that the characters in the webisodes were too mean to each other which detracted from the anti-bullying message. Internal changes were made and webisode content is making the effort to align better with the message of the brand. I was informed that the entertainment team has gone back in to “locked” episodes (content that has been edited and aired) and has done further editing to remove unnecessary mean comments. Creators had expressed a difficulty in developing fully fleshed characters in the 90 second and 3 minute story lines, and felt more successful at getting their message across in the longer forms of entertainment and animated specials that allowed for better character development and richer storytelling.

Mattel and Monster High also began partnering with girl-run advocacy groups like the Kind Campaign and We Stop Hate to further the anti-bullying message and to bring more eyes on the work of these campaigns. Manufacturing changes were implemented to guarantee the soft goods (clothing) came off the line more accurately to the design and now must fit the “Modesty Test”, which involves a focus group of employees reviewing new dolls against the approved sample and giving feedback on the clothing and if it is perceived to be too sexy. Another change is that hemlines got longer and leggings are now worn under most of the shorter skirts.

So that’s the good news, and Whitney and I commended Mattel for making those changes, as they are a step in the right direction. But we felt there was need for a conversation on some discrepancy that remained with the brand, the product, and the messaging.

First being, the characters were still pretty vicious to each other in the webisodes, and the feel good 9 second message at the end didn’t cut it if this was really to be a brand about anti-bullying. I presented Dr. Jennifer Shewmaker’s research that in 86 minutes of webisodes programming she observed 37 instances of peer cruelty. Most of the character fighting was still centered around popularity, heterosexual relationships, and fashion or needing makeovers. I also brought up the many YouTube videos that exist of girls (usually upper elementary age) playing with their dolls, and the story line being voiced by the child is almost always one of girl-on-girl aggression. The take-away from the webisodes did not seem to be the final PSA, but rather the drama that frenemies creates. Some of the anti-bullying girl experts that teamed with Monster High have offered solutions that my colleagues and I have felt was lacking and weak. Not that the advice was bad, but it was a fluffy version of really empowering girls and creating, as Rosalind Wiseman calls is, cultures of dignity. When not going with a full-court press on the bullying, body image, or beauty myth issues, this move of pairing with girl entrepreneurs can look like corporate goodwashing. Presenting conflict and story resolution is one thing, teaching real anti-bullying, self-acceptance, and leadership skills to your audience is another. But to Mattel’s credit, the approach they are taking is to advocate for personal solutions for each girl to implement in her life, such as being more accepting of her own flaws and imperfection in others.

I asked Mattel to realize they had an incredible vehicle for social change with this brand, they were keyed into the youth demographic most accepting of bullying and leadership training, and that they simply needed to have the strength of their convictions. They could go further with the stories as the cat fighting and boyfriend meme has been done. Give the characters real life tween/teen problems to work out – as a team. We talked about ways for the characters to experience conflict in their lives without needing to be in conflict with each other. They could continue to be monsterific and interesting, but a kinder and gentler version of Monster High would still be successful.

Next, we discussed the sexiness of the dolls. The designer had a strong reaction to this, and I have to admit, I think she had the most at stake in this meeting because it was her art, her creation that had come to life and was now being criticized. During the introductions she told the room she was a mom to five girls, and was “very dialed into the issues girls faced”. She said she never went into this project with the intention of creating characters that were as sexy or harmful as they appeared to us to be. I need to tell you, we could see the pain on her face at this accusation – and I think that came from a place as a professional artist and a mother to girls. Her words were heartfelt as she described to us the design process the dolls went under. This felt like the moment when we were furthest away from each other, which meant now there was only space to come closer together.
Whitney Smith and I felt what the designer said was true, that she didn’t go into this with any intention to hurt or sexualize girls. Whitney pointed out, that is just how ingrained this beauty myth and sexualization is and that sometimes we can be a part of it without even realizing it. I commented that everything negative from the media was present in these dolls – the sexualized dress and makeup/eyes, extreme thinness, body shaming, Beauty Myth, and focus on being popular over substantive. I asked that as she continued to develop new characters and dolls, to use some diversity in body shape, interests, and focus on the scary over sexy. Whitney and I asked that Mattel shift the focus from what the characters look like, to what they can “do”.

We addressed the heavy make-up and “Come hither” eyes. The designer explained there is a lot of research that goes into a doll’s eyes, and it is the difference between a doll being beloved or creepy. Mattel research showed that girls were attracted to a made-up eye with reflective light spots. Many dolls now have larger eyes because research shows the eyes are the window that helps girls emotionally connect with the toy. I think there is a way to do large, friendly eyes without looking sexy and inviting. I asked if they would ever consider doing a character/doll that was more of a “tomboy”, or who wore less makeup.
When we talked about the thinness of the dolls, we were told that the clothes had to look good, because the brand was also about a fabulous fashion sense. I commented that much like the fashion industry, clothes are best displayed when the body looks like a coat hanger but that doesn’t necessarily mean that is what is best for the human body. We compared body types to some other dolls on the market, and asked if there could be an introduction of some characters with larger or shorter frames, since the brand is supposed to be about accepting flaws and differences. From a production stand point – the dolls need to be able to wear each other’s clothes so it is easier to produce one body type. This is also more beneficial to the consumer, because a one-size-fits-all is a better economic value than having to buy a dozen dolls and a dozen outfits. I think this will be a hard change on the production lines, but it is something that Mattel could accomplish via the webisodes. This is an idea that went over well at the meeting.

Finally we talked about body image and the adult nature of the dolls. I think the newer dolls are dressed much more appropriately dressed than the original creations. The funk is still there, but the Playboy Mansion look is gone. Whitney and I applauded Emily Anne’s character, both in body size and in dress. Emily Anne’s character looked like a normal teen, like someone I would have over to babysit my kids. We discussed that if you are an authentic and uniquely weird brand with an edge, you don’t need sex to sell your product. I used examples of Ruby Gloom or Tim Burton being the former, with Lady Gaga being the latter. I asked for more of a Coraline/Emily the Strange vibe and less adult sexuality. I talked about my own daughter Amelia loving monsters and creepy stuff and I would otherwise be their target mom, but that I couldn’t buy into Monster High because of the sexualization and the body image concerns. I challenged them to make me want to buy a doll.

In closing, Whitney and I explained the idea between being a sexual agent and a sex object, and the immense pressure even young girls are under to be sex objects. Girls need media that does not have them so focused on beauty, sex, and being thin. Whitney and I both felt that Monster High had a lot of room to grow, and had the space to do some really incredible things for their audience and fans.

In my final statement to the team, I looked in the eyes of the people around the room and asked them what legacy did Mattel want to leave on childhood knowing the main audience and consumer for Monster High was young girls. The worst issues girls are facing in their young lives are body insecurity and eating disorders, low self-esteem, sex abuse and assault, early pregnancy, and dating violence. Would someone who was never heard of these dolls be able to see the message Mattel wanted this brand to convey? Would someone who has never seen Monster High before think that the brand was contributing to or detracting from these issues? I again asked them to focus on scary over sexy, and truly making the commitment to be an anti-bullying vehicle.

The meeting ended with handshakes, smiles, and even some hugs. I think both sides felt heard by the other side, and we found that we had a lot of common ground. Whitney and I presented some ideas the Mattel team really liked and wanted to move forward on. Mattel expressed a desire for this to be an ongoing conversation, and I think that sitting down together was the perfect way for the two sides to learn from each other. Systemic change doesn’t take place over night, but I know that Whitney and I walked out of there with our heads held high, confident that we gave Mattel some great ideas to move forward on. Monster High isn’t going away, but I think continued improvement to the brand can create something that is truly empowering to its young fans.