Does American Girl Have a Sex Problem?
The Care & Keeping of You may be a much-cherished classic with good intentions. But why is it so coy when it comes to sex and sexuality?
Certain activities are ill-suited to being taught exclusively from a book: putting in contact lenses, falling in love, driving stick shift—and, for many girls, inserting a tampon.
Unlike learning to cook a soufflé or build a bookshelf, figuring out that vaginal jigsaw puzzle with a Tampax Pearl cannot be neatly enumerated in a step-by-step process that will translate to successfully completing said task.
But The Care & Keeping of You comes pretty close to doing just that—and that’s why the book has been a hallowed guide to puberty for girls born in the late 1980s through the most recent generation of tweens.
Since the American Girl company (best known for its line of historic-themed and costly dolls) published the The Care & Keeping of You in 1998, the book has been a godsend guide to girls—and their parents.
I say that as someone who was given a copy of the book a little over 15 years ago by my mother when I was on the brink of puberty or, realistically, probably already starting it (today in the U.S., the average age of beginning breast development is 9½ for white girls and just under 9 for African-American girls; I was a little over 10 at the time).
I still remember being struck by the graphicness of the two page-spread of tampon instructions in The Care & Keeping of You—and I don’t mean graphicness in a scary or shocking way, but in terms of the pictures clarity and accessibility.
Here were friendly illustrations of a girl around my age, sitting on a toilet and spreading her labia with a fuzz of pubic hair visible.
In four steps, the girl accomplished an act that seemed only slightly more achievable in my near future than scaling Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Viewing the same instructions today, I actually feel a wave of nostalgia as I remember first reading the book, wondering when I’d get my period and trying to imagine what my real breasts would look like (both arrivals ultimately proving anti-climactic).
An almost verbatim reproduction of them can be found in The Care & Keeping of You 2.
In 2013, The Care & Keeping of You was broken down into two separate editions, one for younger and one for older girls, under the new authorship of Dr. Cara Natterson, who took over from Valorie Lee Schaefer.
American Girl has just published a third part, The Care & Keeping of Us: two parallel books, one for a mother and a daughter, for “how-to-say-it” when it comes to potentially uncomfortable puberty topics, from bra-buying to body odor to bulimia.
Natterson, who has also authored a number of other books about child-rearing, was just beginning her career as a pediatrician when the original The Care & Keeping of You was published.
“The first book broke all these different barriers because no one was talking about this stuff,” Natterson told the Daily Beast.
Well, maybe not exactly no one. American children have been receiving formalized sex education in schools from as early as the 1920s, though generally highly erratic in quality depending on the time and place.
A book on the physical, emotional, and mental changes of puberty filled with entertaining illustrations and chatty, plainly-written text was a fairly momentous improvement from the available puberty guides.
Instead of featuring intimidating Gray’s Anatomy-esque pictures of organs or using images of women who are far too old and, shall we say, developed to be considered pubescent, The Care and Keeping of You is lined with drawings of age-appropriate girls with warm faces, teeth filled with braces, and pimples breaking out on their noses.
While the illustrator of The Care & Keeping series changed from Norm Bendell in the original to Josée Masse in the later versions, the visual aesthetic has remained remarkably consistent in a good way. And in the later Masse versions, the cast of girls and mothers featured have only become more ethnically and racially diverse.
Unlike the tombs of tightly condensed medical jargon with inscrutable diagrams, The Care and Keeping of You is written in accessible language that girls even too young to read John Green novels will understand.
The messages about growing into adulthood are also far more empowering than the ones from the infamous menstrual manuals issued by manufacturers like Modess and Kotex during the 1940s and 1950s.
Such guidebooks often talked about periods in highly veiled language (“that time of the month”).
They also contained some very pointed messages about how a young woman should behave.
A 1959 Modess pamphlet stated on its first page “You were given the gift of womanliness by birth, but it is your responsibility to preserve and cultivate it” and later warned that “the least suggestion of an offensive odor can destroy the good impression created by an otherwise well-groomed woman.”
Those are not exactly the message parents in 2015 want imparted on their daughters (or so we hope).
In the nearly four decades between the publication of those pamphlets and the arrival of The Care & Keeping Of You, puberty became dramatically less stigmatized, though not as much as one would think.
One of the most famous puberty-related book for girls was not an actual guide but Judy Blume’s 1970 Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. The novel about a sixth-grade girl getting her period and buying her first bra remains one of the most consistently banned books in the U.S. to this day.
No wonder many millennial women feel a strong affection for and even a sense of gratitude to The Care and Keeping of You. As I flipped through the The Care & Keeping series today as a 25-year-old woman, I was struck more by what the books were omitting than what they were saying.
Illustrations in the sections on periods seemed deceptively clean without any traces of menstrual blood. I realized the diagrams of the vagina failed to note the presence of the clitoris. And that brings me to the most glaring omission: There is no mention of masturbation, sexual acts, or even sexual desires.
Even though The Care & Keeping of Us suggests ways for parents and daughters to talk about crushes in the “Romance” section, there is no mention of sexual feelings or physical reactions stronger than a “pounding heart” or a “hot face.”
Nor is there any specific mention in this section about what to do if your daughter is developing these feelings for another girl, which can initially be extra confusing for an adolescent.
Was American Girls actively keeping sex out of their puberty discussion?
Quite simply, according to Natterson, yes.
“The success in its original version was that it gave content about the emotional and physical development without sex,” Natterson told me. “It quite purposefully leaves sex, masturbation, and most drug content out. The idea is that these are starter books.”
Natterson discussed a lot about the fear of overloading adolescents, especially since they have so much—“too much,” she said—information available through the Web. At one point, she groans at the word “Internet.”
Specifically, they often use Google Image search. “If kids don’t know the definition of a word and they’re embarrassed, they’ll Google it, whether it’s body parts or in the lyrics of songs,” Natterson said. “They’ll look up and get two or three dozen images of the body parts.”
But The Care & Keeping of You 2 is explicitly for girls ages 10 and up, with Natterson saying she envisioned the book roughly for girls ages 11 to 14.
The Care & Keeping of Us does include a brief mention of sexting in the “Virtual Worlds” section about internet and social media. “Anecdotally, by eighth grade, I don’t know a girl who doesn’t know someone who has had a sexting incident or knows someone who knows someone,” Natterson said of its pervasiveness.
Yet, adequately addressing something like sexting without talking about sex seems like putting the horse before the cart.
Still, Natterson sees the absence of sexual discussion as necessary for The Care & Keeping series—an accommodation that is as much for the parents as the kids.
“Would I love to write that book [about sex]? You betcha,’” Natterson told me. “But my goal with this was to introduce information to young kids, and I would rather not give too much information and scare away parents.”
“It’s hard to fit all in in one book,” Dr. Julianna Deardorff, professor of adolescent psychology at UC Berkeley and co-author of The New Puberty: How to Navigate Early Development in Today’s Girls, told The Daily Beast.
Deardorff said she regularly recommends The Care & Keeping series to parents, but added, “The American Girl books really need to be taking in conjunction with other resources that deal with sex head-on.”
Even if The Care & Keeping series is not the all-encompassing “puberty bible” many of us first readers remember it as, Deardorff stressed it was important that parents begin those lighter, opening talks about puberty—the kind these books are better suited to handle—to foster multiple, longer conversations.
“We used to think it was ‘The Talk,’ and then it’s over. It’s really talks,” Deardorff said. “Build on it, brick by brick. As the parent, you’re the scaffolding.”