Western Pennsylvania Girl Scouts give Barbie a cold shoulder

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Christy Uffelman was a Girl Scout from childhood through her teens when she earned the organization's top honor, the Gold Award. Now she leads her 10-year-old daughter's Brownie troop in Mt. Lebanon.

She also loved playing with Barbie dolls as a girl and allows her daughter to play with the iconic fashion toy.

But mixing Barbie and scouting is not an ideal way to teach young girls about career role models, said Ms. Uffelman, a partner in consulting firm Align Leadership's Pittsburgh office and a national board member of the mentoring organization, Strong Women, Strong Girls.

And the local Girl Scout chapter agrees.

The Girl Scouts Western Pennsylvania isn't promoting the national Girl Scouts' partnership with Barbie's manufacturer, Mattel, a program that includes Barbie-themed activities and a Barbie patch for scout uniforms.

"The Girl Scouts are very invested with connecting the dots for girls with real women who have real careers," Ms. Uffelman said. "And those women don't look like Barbie. And that's OK because neither do our girls."

The tie-in, according to Mattel and the Girl Scouts, is that Barbie has explored more than 100 careers over the decades and, like her, scouts can "dream and explore a world without limits."

Critics of the program say that Barbie -- despite her gigs as an astronaut, engineer and doctor -- has an unrealistic body type and sends the wrong message about what it takes to achieve success.

"Holding Barbie, the quintessential fashion doll, up as role model for Girl Scouts simultaneously sexualizes young girls, idealizes an impossible body type and undermines the Girl Scouts' vital mission to build 'girls of courage, confidence and character,'" said Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

Ms. Linn's Boston-based organization and the Center for a New American Dream, a nonprofit in Charlottesville, Va., last week spoke out against the Barbie-Girl Scout alliance and urged the scouts to drop the deal, which included a $2 million payment from Mattel.

New American Dream staff member Edna Rienzi -- a former scout and now a troop leader -- criticized the partnership between the nonprofit scouting organization and the California-based Fortune 500 company as promoting hyper-consumerism and a doll "that is part of a culture that encourages girls from a very young age to define themselves through appearance and play-sexiness."

Barbie's recent appearance as a model in Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue was "icing on the cake" for the Pittsburgh-area Girl Scouts' leadership, which opted out of the promotion after it launched in August, said Patricia Burkart, chief executive of Girl Scouts Western Pennsylvania.

"We received several free boxes of materials to kick off the [Barbie] patch program and we put them out for volunteers," Ms. Burkart said. "We got some feedback from people who said it was 'cute.' We didn't put it in any of our retail shops and we didn't have anyone clamoring for it."

Girl Scouts Western Pennsylvania encompasses 27 counties, has 36,000 scouts ages 5 to 17 and 6,000 active volunteers.

After talking over the program with her executive staff, Ms. Burkart recommended to the organization's board that the regional group not actively promote it.

"Barbie has always kind of had that stigma of not really looking like most people, in terms of her figure, and has always been more of a fashion model type," said Ms. Burkart. "She isn't established as a leader that has been steeped in career exploration. We don't believe she is a role model for our girls in leadership development."

In response to calls to sever the affiliation, the New-York based Girl Scouts national organization stood behind it.

"Our partnership with Mattel focuses on career exploration and teaches girls about inspiring women in a fun way," the national group said in a statement. "It helps us bring to over 2 million Girl Scouts the message that they can do anything."

Coincidentally, Barbie and the Girl Scouts both celebrated birthdays this week: Barbie turned 55 on Sunday, and Wednesday marked the 102nd anniversary of the Girl Scouts.

The Associated Press contributed. Joyce Gannon: jgannon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1580.

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