A reflection of ‘me’
Dolls help gender-creative children accurately express who they are, no matter what their anatomy looks like
For a child who’s gender-creative—whose identity and/or expression doesn’t conform to traditional gender norms—affirmation and support can mean the difference between wellness and potential mental health problems stemming from societal stigma and discrimination. But what does gender affirmation actually look like for children?
Therapist Dianne Berg, Ph.D., and her colleagues in the University of Minnesota’s Program in Human Sexuality (PHS), which marks its 50th anniversary this year, developed an innovative answer. Berg, whose pediatric patients range in age from 5 to 11, is introducing a new tool to her therapy sessions: “paper” dolls that enable kids to accurately express who they are.
At the suggestion of colleague Rachel Becker Warner, Psy.D., Berg and Ashley Finch, an artist and communications associate for PHS’ National Center for Gender Spectrum Health, created a set of two-dimensional dolls that kids can use to represent themselves by layering them with different hair, clothing, and accessories, as well as internal and external sex organs.
The addition of sex organs is key, Berg explains, and it’s one characteristic that makes these dolls unique.
“It’s really important to address the belief, ‘I’m not a “real” boy because I don’t have these parts,’ versus, ‘I can be 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.”
A grant from the California Institute of Contemporary Art funded the prototypes. Elevating the work of trans-identified designers like Finch is among the project’s goals.
“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.”