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When I worked at the American Girl store, my main responsibility was styling the dolls' hair. I occasionally did ear piercings — where you take the doll in the back so the kid can't see, then use a small drill to put holes in her ears — and cleaned dolls that had fingerprints or other dirt in them. But I was really hired to style hair.
The store had a special salon area, and a big chart next to the salon with all the different styles we could do. We'd ask each kid to pick a style she liked that also worked with her doll's hair — dolls with short hair didn't have as many options, which is probably why they weren't as popular. Kids tended to gravitate to dolls with long, pretty, styleable hair.
Most of the styles were pretty basic, variations on a few simple ideas. We did a lot of braids. The hard part was when the dolls were "well-loved," as we used to say — when they'd been played with really hard and had almost no hair left. Usually you could do something with creative combing, but I remember one doll that had hair all along the hairline, but in the back she was completely bald. We had to tell the customer we just couldn't do anything with her.
Kids were usually pretty understanding — if we explained to them that a doll just didn't have enough hair, or the right kind of hair, for a certain style, they'd accept it. Moms and grandmothers were tougher, though. Especially the grandmothers. For some reason they were always the ones bringing in a doll with a straight bob and asking us to somehow make her hair long and curly.
They got mad more often than you would think, too. Once a grandma brought in a doll with really damaged hair, and wanted us to make it look brand-new again. We told her we'd do what we could, but we couldn't make her look completely new, and then we did up the doll's hair as best we could. When she came back later she was just furious that the doll didn't look new. She demanded to see a manager, and then she yelled at him. We offered to send the doll to the doll hospital that American Girl runs so she could be completely fixed, but the grandma wasn't having that either. Sometimes you just couldn't satisfy people.
I was always surprised by how big a deal it was to people that these toys get played with and don’t always stay pristine. That’s what they’re for — they’re toys. When you become that attached to a doll, it's going to see some wear and tear. But some adults just couldn't accept that their kids' dolls wouldn't stay perfect.
The other hard part was the management. They enforced a very cheerleader mentality, sort of a Disneyland atmosphere — they were always talking about “making magic.” So we were expected to have huge smiles all the time, and to talk in a really high-pitched cheerleader voice that didn't sound genuine at all. When a kid came in for an appointment we'd write down their name, and we were supposed to really overdo it, say something like, "Oh my God, that's so pretty," even if it was the most mundane name ever. And we were supposed to ask the doll's name too, like, "Who is this?" We had to act like that for the entire appointment.
For the most part the kids didn't really respond when we'd overpraise their names and things like that — I think they were usually too shy. The Disneyland stuff was more for the parents than the kids.
After every style we'd let the kid choose two colors of ribbon and then we'd tie them in a bow. We had about 30 colors but the kids always picked from about five popular ones. They loved hot pink and electric blue, and lime green. Yellows were unpopular, and I never had a kid pick chocolate brown. We had tons of brown ribbon sitting around that never got used.
My job could be hard sometimes, but I learned more about how to talk to kids, how to be patient and explain things to them in a positive way. I learned some tricks for covering up bald spots and reshaping curls. And I got to play with dolls' hair all the time, which I loved growing up — in that way the job was like being a kid again.
As told to Anna North.