Dolls, Books, and Bodies

This morning, my two-year-old daughter Scooba sang an improvisational song about nipples at the breakfast table. “Nipples, nipples, nipples nipples nipples…”

I haven’t breast-fed this child since she was six months old, which makes her nipple fixation even more entertaining. Scooba is very egalitarian, however. She also loves moles, pimples, skin tags, belly buttons, and tattoos.

Scooba is hugely interested in bodies right now. She takes off the clothes of every doll she sees, just to see what’s underneath. She sometimes tries to check under the clothes of visitors, as well, and I’ve had to warn more than one person to take care of their own boundaries in that regard.

When I first noticed her curiosity, I searched around for an anatomically correct doll for her to play with. Little did I know what I was getting into.

First of all, my daughters are black–or biracial, if you prefer, but don’t say so for my (white) sake. I try to make sure our doll selection is as multi-hued as our family is.

Second of all, most ‘anatomically correct’ dolls are vinyl, which I’d prefer to avoid if possible due to environmental contaminants. But I’m no purist; I decided early on that I’d bend this rule for the right doll.

But there’s also the issue of exactly what “anatomically correct” really means, especially when it comes to dolls with girl parts. Most affordable anatomically correct dolls are made for potty training purposes, I discovered. Many of them are completely smooth in the front, with only a small pinhole to mark the urethra, plus molded buttocks in the back. On fabric dolls, the urethra will be a tiny thread knot. I have yet to see a girl doll with identifiable labia.

There is another class of dolls that may have more anatomical detail, but they’re designed for therapists to use when discussing sexual abuse with young children. They’re more expensive, and I confess that the context freaks me out a little.

So for now, little yarn knots it is.

Next, I started to look around for books. I had several recommended to me, and I appreciate the help all my parent friends gave me in this regard. But either I’m too picky, or there’s something missing on the shelves. I grew up with a book–now sadly outdated (for example, it says that you can’t tell what sex a baby is until it’s born…) and short on concrete words for body parts, it nonetheless had the most lovely artwork. Realistic watercolors of babies, children, adolescents, and adults, all naked.  As far as I can tell, there is nothing remotely like that being published today. It’s all cartoon-style drawings, designed to overcome our inherent embarrassment I suppose by giggling. I can’t stand it.

Many of the books also talk about bodies in ways that I’m not comfortable with–ways that seem to me to introduce a subtext of body-shaming in the guise of sexual abuse prevention. I’d prefer to teach my children basic body autonomy, that all of their body parts belong to them and them alone, that if they don’t want to be tickled, I won’t tickle them. If they don’t want to be touched–anywhere–that I and others will respect that as far as possible, and they have the right to enforce it or ask for help to enforce it if necessary. That I’ve got their back.

Meanwhile, Scooba is in her nudist phase. She likes to strip off all her clothes at a moment’s notice and in less than a minute flat. She’s especially prone to doing this upon waking up or being put down in her crib, which has made for a lot of laundry considering she isn’t anywhere near potty-trained yet.  All her dolls are naked, too, as naked as she can get them. Some days she tries to take my clothes off, too. And I model boundaries: “I don’t want to take my shirt off. Please stop.”

And I keep my eyes out for books that tell the truth, that don’t forget to mention breasts or other body parts, that know the difference between a vulva and a vagina, that don’t think we’re all cartoons to giggle at. That can show us how we’re put together, soberly and without shame.


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