What I learned from American Girl's "The Care & Keeping of You" book
Let’s play two truths and a lie. My turn first:
- I didn’t know you were supposed to remove the applicator from the tampon after inserting until I was in high school. Are they seriously supposed to be this uncomfy?
- When I was twelve I told my mom I’d get a boob job if mine got any bigger than a B-cup. No greater sin in the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show era than big boobs. And no, they did not get any bigger (like, at all).
- An early 2000s classic sex-ed book saved my vision from going to shit. Yes, everyone in fourth grade thought I got glasses for attention.
Okay, they’re all true – and all things I was reminded of on the 25th anniversary of American Girl’s The Care & Keeping of You in 2023. Like many other early-2000s kids, a 2012 reprint of the 1998 book was slipped onto my bed just shy of my ninth birthday. It looked like a present, shining on my sheets with the mysticism normally brought by the tooth fairy or Santa (both of whom I still believed in) but didn’t quite deliver the same fuzzy feelings.
Reminiscing on elementary school is like opening my eyes underwater – an amalgamation of vague faces and sounds – but goggles slip on when I remember books, and this one is no exception. Being the little weirdo I was, I decided to flip through the recently gifted Care & Keeping of You as a bit of light evening reading. Proud of my stellar vision, I normally skipped the pages that talked about eye health, but for whatever reason (likely sheer boredom) I didn’t skip it this night.
“Be on the lookout…you may need glasses if you have: …double vision not caused by just crossing your eyes.” Suddenly my favorite road-trip activity of seeing what psychedelic shapes my many-layered vision could make seemed much less harmless. It’s important to keep in mind that this was pre-ipad baby – most nine year olds weren’t pulling up google to figure out if their vision was abnormal. And surely, I thought, the school or my doctor would have noticed if there was something wrong with my vision? But, newly employed with the language given to me by American Girl, I walked downstairs to my parents, with the book in hand.
What followed were forty-minute car rides each week to receive eye therapy – something my parents hadn’t known existed – for binocular diplopia – another thing my parents hadn’t known happened outside of concussions. What followed were two years of eye tests and daily exercises to make my weak eyes stronger. Ten years of slipping on my prism glasses when the headache from focusing my vision bears in. Eventually, my family was told that my vision would have gotten much worse had I not spoken up. More accurately, it would have gotten much worse if I hadn’t read The Care & Keeping of You.
Twenty five years after its initial release the impact of The Care & Keeping of You continues to be felt among Zillenials and Gen-z. If you clicked on this article, you’re most likely already familiar with (and likely waiting for it to be mentioned) the infamous page 45 or, as it’s more commonly known, the BOOB PAGE. Displaying the various stages of breast development as a girl gets ready in front of her mirror. The diagram, more specifically the fifth stage, has been hailed as a sexual awakening that defined the plaid-short and croc-clad baby gays of the noughties. For plenty of girls this was their first exposure to a picture (even if it was just a cartoon) of a naked young woman. Regardless of whether stage five had you toeing the line between wanting her and wanting to be her, it seems all girls – myself most definitely included – had a staring problem when it came to this page. And it stuck with us.
While, like all other corporations, especially those of this period, American Girl has no shortage of areas to critique (including their high prices, decline in quality in the 2010s, and wavering commitment to diversity), this book has by-and-large stood the test of time. With passages on consent – “your body is yours and yours alone…you have the right to protect it from anyone” — and pages preaching body neutrality, the book glows in comparison to a period when growing up was defined by Tumblr body-checking, Youtube ab-workouts, and tabloid covers bashing a celebrity woman’s body. The author, Valorie Lee Schaefer, is difficult to describe without using the word icon. Speaking out on the importance of abortion access following the overturning of Roe, Lee Schaefer reflected on the book, stating: “We wanted to plant the seed of an idea: Your parents and other grown-ups are there to help you, but it’s your body—a message that’s still timely today, even if it hits in a slightly different way.”
With that being said, I’d like to introduce what I’d add to the book twenty-five years later:
- American Girl has always been intertwined with queerness, delivering characters such as Kit Kittredge who resonated with queer children across the country. It's time that the Care & Keeping books reflect that. Instead of lines like “you may also begin to notice boys in a whole different way,” let's opt for more gender-neutral or gender-inclusive language.
- Let’s not skimp on including the tampon insertion diagram that the 1998 version had, but the 2012 edition cut. See: my tampon mishap.
- By the time I was given my copy of The Care & Keeping of You I was already struggling with anxiety, depression, and OCD, but I had no way of knowing how to express this. Imagine if my mental health issues had been illuminated as early as my double vision was.
Cheers to twenty-five years of The Care & Keeping of You, and cheers to many more.