Not everyone played with dolls growing up, but even if you didn’t, you probably knew about American Girl, the brand that set the unofficial gold standard when it came to personalized dolls that actually reflected your identity. “The brand as a whole is very nostalgic for me, and I have so many fond memories of playing with these dolls,” says Shay Rudolph. Rudolph, 16, is one of the co-hosts of American Girl’s new Smart Girl’s Podcast, which is the latest move for the brand to connect with its young audience, largely made of girls, women, and femmes. For American Girl, it’s always been about more than dolls — it’s about giving its listeners a solid foundation to build strong identities on top of, no matter what stage in life they’re at.
For Rudolph, hosting the podcast is “the first time I was able to really open up and use my voice and speak about personal experiences.” Launching on Aug. 17, The Smart Girl’s Podcast is hosted by Rudolph and Jess Weiner, 40-something, a cultural expert and consultant with the brand. The podcast, which will be available on all streaming platforms, is an extension of the long-running American Girl book series dedicated to helping young readers navigate everything life throws at them, from first-time crushes and friendship troubles to body image and inclusion, and everything in between. While each episode is roughly an hour long, some topics require more love than others, so you’ll be able to find multiple episodes dedicated to different aspects of one subject.
“There are a tremendous amount of systemic pressures facing girls and women today,” says Weiner. That’s why, she adds, “the relationship that you have with yourself is one of the most important relationships you will ever have in your life.”
As a kid, one of the most important milestones in my own life was reading AG’s The Care and Keeping of You — a book that covered the basics of puberty in a uniquely straightforward way and encouraged me to be comfortable in my own skin. “I read The Care and Keeping of You also when I was younger, and I think it was just such an honest book,” Rudolph says of her own experience. The book was a pioneer in teaching young readers about their bodies in an approachable way, and it covered a huge range of issues, like depression, eating disorders, and abuse, that were often deemed taboo for young girls to talk about. “It was the first time I read something about my body, and about me as a human being, that was just so truthful,” Rudolph adds. “It was so valuable to have that as a young girl.”
The podcast covers a wide range of topics, from lighter subjects like friendships and fun to more complex issues like body image and mental health. Weiner emphasizes how important it is to talk about these issues on the Smart Girl’s Podcast. “These [subjects] should not be taboo,” she says. “We’re actually calling a vagina a vagina and not a ‘hoo-ha’ or a ‘hoo-hoo-ninny’ or whatever you want to say. And when we’re talking about things like anxiety, depression, eating disorders, or body image issues, we’re being really specific, which is a service that I think the books did,” she adds. “These are real experiences that all folks have — specifically for young girls, who are taught to be ashamed of these experiences.”
Confidence isn’t something that just comes and stays forever. It’s an up- and downhill battle.
Of course, this doesn’t just apply to young listeners. With the show’s intergenerational approach, audience members of any age and background can learn how to explore their ever-evolving identities in a healthy way. “My personal intent with this podcast was to start very open conversations that anybody could listen to,” says Rudolph. “If we’re talking about friendship, we talk about the different ways [listeners can] handle something and how to have courageous conversations with the people in their life.”
She says that having Weiner’s experience to bounce topics off of was reassuring. “Talking about certain friendships, or self-confidence, or mental health, I was able to look back on moments, and hear what Jess was saying too, and be like, ‘Oh, my God, yeah, I wish I had known that then,’” she says.
“It never ends,” Weiner chimes in, highlighting the need for self-care, building friendships, and the (unfortunate) embarrassment of having crushes. “You're just a grown-up with a little kid inside. I just have a grown-up body, but the issues are still the same.”
“Confidence isn’t something that just comes and stays forever. It’s an up- and downhill battle,” Rudolph adds. She thinks it’s helpful to remind yourself daily that “I’m on my own path, my own journey, I’m doing what's best for me, and I can’t compare that to what other people are doing.” Now, that’s some advice I wish I had known when I was 16.