Spring 2020

A reflection of ‘me’

Created at the U of M’s National Center for Gender Spectrum Health, MyGender Dolls illustrate why gender diversity representation matters for children

Children can use a set of two-dimensional dolls to represent themselves by layering them with different hair, clothing, and accessories, as well as internal and external sex organs.

For a child who’s gender-creative—whose identity and/or expression exists outside of the gender binary and socialized gender norms—affirmation and support can promote resilience and buffer against health problems that can be attributed to societal stigma and discrimination. But how does one actually help a child explore and affirm their gender?

There are no well-studied tools that can make the abstract concept of gender come to life in a tangible, interactive experience, says the University of Minnesota’s Dianne Berg, Ph.D.

That’s why she and her colleagues at the National Center for Gender Spectrum Health (NCGSH), housed within the Medical School’s Eli Coleman Institute for Sexual and Gender Health, are developing an innovative answer. 

Berg, also an M Health Fairview licensed psychologist whose youngest patients range in age from 5 to 11, is introducing a new tool in her therapy sessions: MyGender Dolls, designed to empower kids to express who they are.

“I think everyone should be learning that there’s diversity in gender identity and that what makes you ‘real’ is not what your body parts are, but how you think and feel.”
Dianne Berg, Ph.D.

Based on an idea from colleague Rachel Becker Warner, Psy.D., Berg and Ashley Finch, an artist and communications associate at the NCGSH, created a set of two-dimensional dolls that kids can use to represent themselves by layering on different hairstyles, clothing, and accessories, as well as internal reproductive organs and external genitalia. These additions of reproductive organs and genitalia are key, Berg explains, and they make these dolls unique.

“It’s really important to address the belief, ‘I’m not a “real” boy because I don’t have these private parts,’ versus, ‘I am a real boy, whatever my anatomy looks like,’” Berg says. “It’s about helping children develop tools to cope with messages in society that could lead to shame.”

Postdoctoral fellow Ben Parchem, Ph.D., who holds the Randi and Fred Ettner Fellowship in Transgender Health, recently started sharing the MyGender Dolls with his young patients.

“It made talking about gender fun, helped them realize all the different options that exist for who they can be—regardless of their body parts—and increased their comfort with discussing their own feelings about their body with their parents,” he says. 

Therapist Elizabeth Panetta, M.S.W., has also found the MyGender Dolls valuable in their work with kids.

“We were able to explore and brainstorm not just what our bodies are able to do now but what we want our bodies to do and look like in the future,” they say. “We also were able to talk about private parts without it feeling too serious or clinical.”


These interactions are rooted in the Gender Affirmative Lifespan Approach, also developed at the NCGSH, which emphasizes a nonpathologizing view of gender health. This approach is designed to counteract the internalization of stigma and improve health outcomes for trans and gender-diverse people by cultivating gender literacy, increasing resilience, expanding beyond gender binary limits, providing access to medical care, and setting the groundwork for pleasure-oriented positive sexuality.

A grant from the California Institute of Contemporary Art funded the MyGender Dolls prototypes. Berg and team are now in search of additional funding to conduct focus groups for gender-creative kids and their caregivers that will help them develop research-driven guidelines for how therapists can use the dolls in a gender-competent way.

Elevating the work of trans-identified designers like Finch is among the project’s goals as well.

“I think everyone should be learning that there’s diversity in gender identity and that what makes you ‘real’ is not what your body parts are,” Berg says, “but how you think and feel.”