February 16, 2018

Barbie Bod Mods | Programs That Pop

Raziel Reid’s win of A 2014 Governor General award for When Everything Feels Like the Movies (Arsenal Pulp) sparked many conversations through our teen library groups and brought to light their questions and personal concerns. With topics of gender and identity taking center stage in the media, we believed it was a good time to create a program that addressed societal ideals, body image, and gender identity—and celebrated diversity. A bag of old Barbie dolls languishing under Lisa Mudrakoff’s desk proved to be the perfect foundation for a program in social literacy that would also be creative and fun, meeting teens’ requests for exciting tactile events that allowed them to get their hands dirty while also addressing the topics brought to mind by Reid’s novel.

RE-VAMPED (clockwise from top l.): Barbie dolls, reimagined to express teens’  own varied identities, hit the runway; the program featured a living teen doll (r.), author Mudrakoff’s daughter;  Mudrakoff & Schertzer toast their successful program

RE-VAMPED (clockwise from top l.): Barbie dolls, reimagined to express teens’
own varied identities, hit the runway; the program featured a living teen doll (r.), author Mudrakoff’s daughter;
Mudrakoff & Schertzer toast their successful program

We planned the Barbie Bod Mods program for the end of July 2015, in the days leading up to Vancouver’s Pride Weekend. Pride is always a vibrant citywide celebration of self and identity, and it perfectly embodies the kind of energy that we wanted. When creating the event poster, we made sure to emphasize that all genders were welcome. We made it a priority to promote to LGBTQ youth groups as well as to schools, summer camps, and art programs, hoping to pique the interest of teens who may not have ever been specifically approached by a city organization to celebrate themselves.

All dolled up

Coworkers and friends donated their old dolls (or their children’s), happy to see them going to a good cause. We added dolls from garage sales and thrift stores to ensure that the diversity approached the diversity of Vancouver’s teens. A temporary studio was set up in a Central Library meeting room and stocked with official Barbie clothes and shoes, fabric and trimming for custom apparel, and a wide variety of art supplies from paint and glitter to sculpting clay for custom bodies.

To stimulate inspiration and conversation, we provided a selection of books and magazines from the library’s holdings covering related social topics such as body image, gender identity, racism, and sexism, as well as sculpting, painting, and sewing. We displayed books about Barbie herself; these titles set off a lot of chat about changing feminine ­ideals. We also developed a book list for the event. David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy and Two Boys Kissing (both Knopf Bks. for Young Readers) were featured; this led to a discussion of how LGBTQ topics have become more visible in the ten years ­between the books’ publications.

Building a safe space

Barbie Bod Mods took place over three afternoons: Wednesday and Thursday were solely for the crafting of the dolls; Friday was for finishing touches and the grand finale: a Barbie runway show. The studio atmosphere was lively and supportive throughout. The teens went through cycles of intense focus and excited chatter, helping one another with ideas and suggestions, slowly sharing some of the reasoning behind their creations. Each day we emphasized that the studio was a safe and respectful space for them to talk, question, learn, and invent. At the start of the program, very few of the participants knew one another as they were being asked to reveal parts of themselves through their creations.

Over the course of the program, we witnessed participants building a community of young people from all over the city, with relationships developing naturally as the teens worked on their dolls side by side. Some older teens, still working through their own identities, nevertheless found themselves mentoring the younger teens as they talked about their questions and struggles. There were teens who had a hard time putting their feelings into words but were able to communicate eloquently through their art. The selection of library materials offered another avenue for discussion and ­communication.

Spreading the word

The response from participants as well as from the wider community has been extremely positive. We have had requests for a repeat from participants as well as from teens who heard about it after the fact, and we are currently exploring opportunities to expand. A visiting teacher from Montreal is hoping to convince her local school or library to offer a similar ­program and get in on this runway ­project.

Lisa Mudrakoff and Sasha Schertzer, who work together in Teen Services at the Vancouver Public Library, BC, are passionate about developing interesting and creative programs for teens and can usually be found buried beneath a mountain of felt, fabric, and glitter.

This article was published in Library Journal's February 15, 2016 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.