This holiday season, lots of kids all over the world are going to ask their parents (and Santa) for a doll. Ideally, a doll that looks a little bit like they do.
But that's a real challenge for parents when their children are differently abled, or possibly suffering with an ongoing illness that changes their appearance.
Enter UK-based Clare Tawell, 39, a medical radiation technologist whose hobby is modifying dolls (including a familiar-looking, red-hatted elf) with bonus bits that tell those children's' stories. The dolls (and elves) come with insulin pumps, limb differences, hearing aids and cleft palates — to name just a few of the changes. Her one-woman, home-based operation is called Bright Ears UK, and she's sold over 2,000 modified dolls and elves on Etsy since 2017.
'Tis the season to be utterly charmed. Just take a look at some of these elves (there are boy and girl ones) on offer:
Now, you may look at those elves and think "they're Elf on the Shelf!" — except, they're not. As Tarwell tells TODAY, she uses the British-based elf called "Elves Behavin' Badly," a PMS International company that she says is "very much behind what I do."
"We still live in a world that puts great emphasis on 'being normal,' so if you have a physical/visible difference you are often made to feel abnormal," she tells TODAY via email. "To a child, this can really affect their self-confidence and esteem. When they go into a toy shop and see dolls with all 'normal' features it only strengthens the feeling of not belonging, or feeling like the odd one out. I want to change that."
One doll at a time, she is. And over the years, it's not just individuals who've purchased her dolls. Nurseries and schools use them, she says, to help "bring up the subject of inclusiveness amongst their children; this is great because hopefully these children will grow into adults who do not judge a person by how they look."
The motivation for creating these dolls is personal: one of Tawell's daughters, Matilda, 4, is deaf and wears hearing aids. (Her other daughter, Evelyn, is 8.) "I became really disheartened when I couldn't find a doll or any toy with hearing aids," she says. "It felt to me that society didn't deem her important and therefore she shouldn't be 'acknowledged.'"
After presenting Matilda with the doll, Tawell says she "could tell (the girl) 'got' what the doll was about because she kept touching the doll's hearing aids and then her own hearing aids."
Soon, other mothers Tawell had met at the National Deaf Children's Society (NDCS) were requesting similar dolls, and "it kind of snowballed from there…. It is incredibly empowering for them. So, my range of dolls quickly expanded, and I'm still expanding them now to include as many medical conditions as possible."
That said, she's addressed the issue of ethnic differentiation in the dolls (most are white, with a few Black dolls) with her customers on her Facebook page, writing recently, "Unfortunately there is a great lack of dolls made by manufacturers of other ethnicities. When I adapt dolls, I need to be able to take them apart so that I can safely attach devices and a lot of the available dolls do not allow me to do this. It is very much an ongoing process to increase the diversity of dolls offered at BrightEars."
Also worth noting: Tawell's business is nonprofit. The price of every item, she says, is made up of material costs, labor time and Etsy fees or charges.
So, if you're thinking that one of her dolls — elf or otherwise — is something you want on your shelf or under your tree, better order fast: "Current dispatch time is 3-4 weeks," she notes on Facebook, and the dolls do sell out fast on Etsy.
"I would love for children in the future to be able to go into a shop and see dolls with hearing aids and cleft lips net to the regular dolls, because then it makes it normal, not different," says Tawell. "When people see these dolls, it can open up a dialogue and increase awareness and understanding of these differences."
It's just a little bit of magic, after all.