By now, we know that dolls aren’t just toys. Or, they are toys, but they’re also caught up in a web of ideas about beauty and self-esteem, and can covertly teach kids about the world and who it values.
It’s precisely this knowledge, which has been confirmed in dozens of analyses and studies, that animates one Brazilian grandfather’s incredible craft: as CTV News explains, the 64-year-old man crochets dolls with different body types, skin disorders and visual impairments.
It started with his granddaughter, Isabella. João Stanganelli Junior has lived with vitiligo — a disease that causes loss of skin pigment in blotches — for nearly half his life, he told CTV, and he started thinking that he wanted to give Isabella something to remember him by.
After his wife challenged him to, Stanganelli learned how to crochet in just five days, and instead of recreating the kind of doll you tear out of a plastic package, he made one in his own image: its skin speckled with patches of depigmentation on its face, arms, and its body.
After seeing photographs of the doll, several people in Stanganelli’s personal circle started requesting their own, he told CTV News.
And the dolls they were requesting were also ones that you might not find at your local toy store.
People were asking for dolls in wheelchairs, or dolls with hearing aids, or dolls with alopecia. Basically, what they wanted were toys that reflected a wider human experience.
Next, Stanganelli branched out into social media. He started showcasing the dolls on Facebook and on Instagram and was “amazed” by the way people were responding. He told CTV News that he felt “gratitude for the varied responses of adults and children.”
Dolls aren’t just toys
Dolls are some of the first toys that kids come into contact with, and can have a powerful influence on the way they interact with others and themselves.
Some people may be familiar with the famous doll test experiment from the 1940s that studied the psychological effects of segregation on Black children. Black kids were put in a room with four dolls, which were identical except for their skin colour, and were asked both to identify the race of each doll and which one they preferred. Most of the kids liked the white dolls better and thought more positively of them.
The conclusion: by osmosis, kids had absorbed the prejudice, discrimination and segregation around them, and through the dolls they played with, it continued to shape their self-esteem.
Watch: These dolls were made to represent a wider spectrum of beauty. Story continues below.
Amy Jandrisevits, the creator of the custom doll program A Doll Like Me, makes dolls with moles, or limb differences, or scars, or facial deformities. For her, this started when she made a doll for a friend’s child, who is transgender and was transitioning at the time.
“It is a really hard sell to tell a kid, ‘You are perfect the way you are,’ and to build self-esteem that way but never offer them anything that looks like them,” Jandrisevits told TODAY Parents in March. “There is a real gap in the market.”
Last year, the rapper The Game posted a photo on Instagram of his daughter with a custom doll inspired by Winnie Harlow, the Canadian fashion model and public spokesperson on vitiligo. He wrote he had the doll made so he could teach his 7-year-old daughter about confidence, self-love and acceptance.
Can’t stop, won’t stop
Stanganelli told CTV News that, because he was diagnosed two years shy of 40, his vitiligo never caused him “any inconvenience,” but that he was conscious of what it might be like for children. It’s hard enough for kids to find their way in the world, and can be more difficult when they feel like they’re different.
For those kids, Stanganelli has dolls — beautiful ones. “The spots I have are beautiful. What hurts me are the flaws in peoples’ characters,” he told CTV News.