It was one trip to the toy store six years ago that spurred Jodi Norgaard to action.
Shopping for a doll with her 9-year-old daughter, Grace, the Glen Ellyn mom was none too pleased with the selections: many of the figures had short skirts, high heels, big hair and lots of makeup.
"I was just appalled," Norgaard said. "My mouth fell open. (My daughter) said, 'Are these dolls for me?' I said, "I'm not sure.'"
"I thought, 'This is insane. What are we telling our girls? What are we telling our boys?' It objectifies our girls by doing that. I don't think any parent wants their child to become a hooker -- that's what these dolls look like."
So Norgaard decided to create a doll of her own for her daughter. She says she wanted a "positive" doll, one that reflects what girls really look like.
"I knew I was gonna take on a battle," Norgaard says.
For the past three years, the 47-year-old mother of three has been designing and marketing the Go! Go! Sports Girls as part of her Dream Big Toy Company, which she runs out of her home. The plush dolls, such as Cassie Soccer, Maya Gymnastics and Sam Softball, are intended to promote exercise, healthy eating and sleeping habits and self-esteem for girls ages 3-12. The dolls have won a dozen awards, including the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Platinum Award, regarded as one of the highest awards in the toy industry.
There are now 11 dolls, and Norgaard is working on developing two more.
They are sold at such online retailers as Amazon, Toys"R"Us and FAO Schwarz, in addition to local retailers such as Anderson's Bookshop and Go Green, Baby! in Naperville, and AliKat and Health Track Sports and Wellness in Glen Ellyn. Soon, they will be sold at Von Maur locations.
"Sometimes I feel what I'm doing is to give parents and girls an option," Norgaard said.
She certainly has had a challenge on her hands in trying to compete with popular "fashion dolls," while also countering the messages girls are sent through the media and culture. But she thinks her message is getting through. Once the dolls get into the hands of girls, they're hooked, she says.
"I've had letters and emails from parents like, 'Swimming Suzi has not left my daughter's arm.' Once a day I get an email from a parent saying thank you. They send pictures of their daughters with the dolls."
Another inspiration for creating the dolls, Norgaard said, was her daughter's involvement in Girls on the Run, a nonprofit program that encourages preteens to develop healthy lifestyles through running. Norgaard, an avid runner since college, had volunteered as a coach on her daughter's team in Glen Ellyn.
"My point is: 'Go out and play.' I think if any adult remembers back to their childhood, you never think back to, 'When I played that video game for eight hours.' You remember, 'When we built that tree house, or went sledding.' Those are the things that make memories. Kids have to get out and play."
The first doll, Gracie Tennis, made its debut at the 2008 U.S. Open in New York, where 500 dolls sold out at kiosks in six days. It took Norgaard two years to design the doll, with the help of her best consultant, her daughter.
As she was designing the dolls, Norgaard took the measurements of Grace and her friends because she wanted to create dolls that were in proper proportion to those who would be playing with them.
"I think it's important that a little girl plays with a doll that looks like a little girl."