By Courtney E. Martin
Sunday, December 10, 2006
A large family of handmade cloth dolls provide children with honest answers about anatomy. Adult dolls have genitalia and pubic hair and mother dolls have breasts that can be snapped onto a baby doll's mouth to teach the importance of breastfeeding.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Amamanta, Spanish for breastfeeding, is a blend of two words that mean love and protection.
It is also the name of a doll family whose members may appeal to holiday shoppers looking beyond the latest Barbie or Bratz doll for a present that's non-hazardous to body image and can also educate about how babies are made, born and nurtured.
Each 16-inch cloth adult Amamanta doll has genitals and pubic hair, and the mother doll features breasts that can be snapped onto the baby doll's mouth to help reinforce the importance of breastfeeding.
"I wish children to be happy and grow with the idea that sexuality is important and is part of our lives," says Margarita Maria Mesa Leal, owner of the company that makes the dolls. Leal hand sews dolls herself, in addition to employing 27 local women in Medellin, Colombia, all of them mothers.
Dolls aren't cheap; an individual can be purchased for $39 or a family for up to $199. Leal didn't go into the particulars of what she pays her workers, but she says these prices allow her to pay a living wage and use only high quality materials.
Leal, a former industrial designer, began the project in 2001 as an instructional device for her small daughter.
She created a mother doll, complete with a baby in the belly and a vagina, to explain that she was pregnant to her daughter. Though only 3 years old, her daughter took to the concept immediately, requesting a father doll and a sister doll to go with the mother and baby, just like her family. A for-profit, small business was born along with her son.
Leal sold the dolls to various families and small businesses around Colombia, and eventually throughout South America. She also spent much of those early months making dolls for a local orphanage filled with children, many of whom had lost their parents in Medellin, a cauldron of drug cartel-related violence during the 1990s. The dolls were a great tool for educating the children, many of whom did not have basic knowledge of human anatomy or sexuality and some of whom had also been sexually assaulted while on the streets.
Leal soon realized that many of these supposed orphans, in fact, had mothers who were too poor to take care of them. She began employing this population, providing them with just the opportunity they needed to move out of poverty and reclaim their children.
When Raul Morales, a Bronx, N.Y.-based advertising entrepreneur, stumbled upon Leal's table at a doll trade show in 2002, he was immediately taken by the quality and ingenuity of the dolls, but even more by Leal's commitment to the women and children of Colombia. A South American immigrant himself, Leal's work reminded him of home.
OneWorld, a small business Morales owns, became the U.S. mail order distributor for the dolls. Their clients include parents, expectant women, doulas, child psychologists, sex educators, hospitals and child advocacy organizations throughout the Americas. He projects that OneWorld, constituted by Morales and two part-time consultants, will make about $25,000 total North American sales in 2006; Leal sells about the same amount to South American clients directly.
From its three original members the Amamanta Family has grown into a sprawling clan of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandmothers, grandfathers, adolescents and even step-parents representing more than 10 cultures. In addition to Colombian members, the company also makes contemporary U.S., traditional Indian and Japanese dolls.
Leal continues creating new dolls and making changes, sometimes at the suggestion of her customers.
Teresa Benami of Atlanta contacted Morales last December, after her 3-year-old daughter, Cora, made a request while playing with her new family of dolls, which had been a Hanukkah present. "She was worried about the newborn baby being cold and asked for a diaper," Benami said.
"I conveyed to Teresa that her little girl had just has given me a great idea for product innovation," Morales says.
Leal loved the idea and immediately designed a diaper to be included with all of the Amamanta Family doll units, which currently also come with a sling to carry the baby, clothes, a blanket and a brochure designed to guide the educational experience.
The dolls, however, are not for everyone.
In fact, as Women's eNews was interviewing Morales, at a coffee shop on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, he pulled out an Amamanta Family of dolls to show the way in which a baby can be "born" from the mother's stomach and then snapped onto a breast to simulate breastfeeding. His demonstration offended a man at a nearby table who angrily asked, "Do you mind?"
Morales was not surprised. "People think these dolls are radical, but isn't it more radical to castrate a part of the human body as if kids will not notice?" he said, referring to conventional dolls, which now often feature breasts, but typically leave out genitalia.
But other people see the dolls as a way to communicate honestly and positively with children about human anatomy. He says recent customers include a health educator who planned to take the dolls to a rural part of Africa, where she was teaching children about AIDS with the challenge of not speaking the local language.
Parents for Megan's Law--a Stony Brook, N.Y., nonprofit that seeks to prevent child sexual abuse--recently put in the largest order Amamanta has ever received, hoping to use the dolls to educate children about the difference between appropriate and inappropriate touch.
Courtney E. Martin is a writer, teacher and filmmaker living in Brooklyn. "Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body," her first book, which will be published on Simon and Schuster's Free Press in spring of 2007. You can read more about Courtney's work at www.courtneyemartin.com.
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