I very nearly made it through parenthood without ever setting foot in an American Girl Doll store. My mother took my oldest daughter when she was 5 or 6, indulging her with a tea-party lunch and matching blue silk pajamas for her and her new doll Jessie, or whatever its name was. My son has always been a boy’s boy, and would only touch an American Girl doll as a prelude to riddling it with Airsoft pellets. So I figured I was safe: my baby, now 8, is a hardcore tomboy, who eschews all pink and scoffs at such girly staples as Barbie and Brownies. But then, without warning, her head spun around like Linda Blair’s in The Exorcist, and the demon that took up residence in her body demanded an American Girl doll.
I try hard not to typecast my children, and am generally pleased when they break out of their established family “roles”–as I was when my rock-climbing warrior boy developed a knack for poetry, or when his serious, kind-hearted older sister revealed an acid-tongued and occasionally foul-mouthed sense of humor. But the free-spirited little jock suddenly embracing doll play? It was too much.
Nevertheless, I did an excellent job of hiding my shock and horror. “Oh… really?” I replied when she professed her desire for a doll. “Well, your birthday is in July. Maybe someone”–read Grandma–“will get you one then.” She pointed out that she had nearly $600 of accumulated birthday and holiday money sitting in her “Bank of Dad” account. So I did what any self-respecting parent faced with an unpalatable request would do: passed the buck to my husband. He was so convinced that she didn’t really want a doll that he told her to wait two weeks, and if she still felt the same way, we could talk about it again.
She rode out the probation period with uncharacteristic patience, then cheerfully reintroduced the proposition, which is how I found myself in that alternate pink and red universe known as the American Girl doll store. Even my daughter looked shell-shocked by the scene, and I saw her waver. But she took a deep breath, barreled past the Bitty Baby section, and charged up the escalator to find the doll that most resembled her. I was experiencing that uncomfortable sense of dislocation I have felt before in such places as a Farm & Fleet store in central Illinois or the designer couture floors at Barneys New York, when I suddenly realize that people actually shop here.
The hair salon was by far the most crowded section of the store, more mobbed than the “bistro” or the overflowing rack of doll-sized spectacles that would put Lenscrafter to shame. Girls crowded around a chart featuring nearly 100 different hairstyles they could choose for their dolls, including a double-decker ponytail or a fishtail braid for $20–more than I pay to get my daughter’s hair trimmed at Supercuts, I might point out. (For $14, the doll can have her ears pierced as well.) Smiling stylists stood behind a counter bearing five little pink barber chairs, all deeply engrossed in brushing, combing, twisting, braiding, and smoothing the hair of their plastic customers.
I started to feel a little dizzy–why was everyone acting like this was normal? where was my species?–and temporarily lost track of my daughter. Luckily, she was wearing her typical weekday outfit: pajama bottoms, a hoodie, Old Navy “Uggs” and a ski hat, so she was easy to spot amid all the plaid skirts and headbands. After a lot of hunting and dithering, she ended up shelling out $200 of her own money for a red-headed doll–which she named Kate–plus a softball uniform and a scuba-diving set. And as we walked back past the hair salon, she looked up at all the side-swept ponytails and made a face. “Weird,” she said. I couldn’t have loved her more.