Body Positive Paper Dolls, Place/Participation/Change Project

Body Positive Paper Dolls

Toby Donoghue, Place/Participation/Change Project

<<Click Images To See Larger >>

To incorporate all of the prompts from this semester, I have created a line of body positive paper dolls that use real women, their bodies, their clothes, and their stories as the subject. I initially wanted to address fatphobia and lack of media representation for overweight women ( books, dolls, toys, movies, tv shows,etc) especially when it comes to goods targeted at adolescent and preteen girls. This is an issue that I have first hand experience with and I remember clearly when I was a preteen who was obsessed with fashion, online dress up dolls and lifestyle games, and things of that nature, but never saw a body in these products that matched mine or that I could relate to. Even now, I don’t see bodies like mine in advertisements or represented in the mainstream media and I worry that this contributes to the already highly present collective fear of getting fat and general disinterest in/disgust for overweight bodies. This is especially harmful I believe in toys and games that young girls in a period where their bodies are changing and they are becoming more aware of how their bodies are treated and sexualized based on how they look. My participant pool is all women who identify as being overweight or having an unconventional body by the social and cultural standards that their particular body is subjected to. While this project initially was going to address only plus sized women, I met some women in the process of this project that I wanted to use as subjects tho they do not necessarily fit the plus size category. For example, one woman, Iris, spoke to me about how she is an athlete and is bulky in the sense that she has a lot of muscle. Because of this, it has been hard for her to reconcile being feminine with being strong and athletic, and also being subjected to the image of the “ideal black women” who has lots of curves. In this way, my project has come to encompass issues of beauty, body, and femininity with regards to giving exposure to bodies that do not fit the norms imposed on them. I am doing this project in conjunction with my Body Politics: History of Women’s Health in America course, so there is also an emphasis on health (in terms of healthy body image and sense of self, but also overcoming or challenging the stigma that overweight bodies can’t be active or healthy).

The process of this project began with the promotion of advertising material around campus and on social media. I then narrowed down my pool of interested participants and interviewed each girl before conducting a photoshoot which was to be the reference imagery for these digital illustrations. Each girl brought two outfits that make her feel the most beautiful/comfortable/herself. The conversations I had with these women were enlightening and empowering.


Emma is a freshman vocal major in the School of Art at CMU. In our interview she talked to me about how being overweight, particularly the stigma that comes with being a pus sized woman, has impacted her in many ways. For instance, she has a brother a few years older than her who is her weight and she said he does not get picked on or pressured to lose weight by friends and family as often. She also discussed its impact on her career choice and passions.

“Tenth grade was when I started getting into singing classical music and I realized, these girls who sing opera are not stick thin because a lot of them need big bodies to retain their big voices. I am so okey with singing the roles I want to sing and staying at this size to do it!” -Emma



Keaton is a senior at CMU involved in dramaturgy through the school of drama and is a director for the Scotch and Soda theatre organization on campus. One highlight from this conversation was the discussion about her LA hometown and dance background and how that has impacted her self image regarding her weight. Keaton was vocal about feeling the stigma that exists in society that considers heavy bodies unhealthy, even though heavy and fit are not mutually exclusive.

“I always was healthy, I played sports and danced for many years, but because I was heavier I didn’t feel always feel like the girl that I looked like… I have a big mirror across from my bed so I can’t avoid looking at myself when I am in my room. I look at myself nude or nearly nude rather often and I think it has actually helped my confidence because I can say, ‘this is what I look like and this is who I am.’ For the most part I am happy with what I look like and I would be happy if I lost weight or gained weight if I could still remember that I will always be who I am.” -Keaton



Kate is a senior at CMU, a soprano in the Treblemakers co-ed a cappella group on campus, and a sister of Alpha Chi Omega. My discussion with Kate was very personal and moving. She opened up to me about her past experiences with radical diets and weight loss programs and the eventual gaining of weight back and all the emotional ups and downs of having a body you don’t feel in control of. Kate’s biggest point was that she just wants to feel comfortable, happy, and fit in her body and recognizes that having control of one’s body and taking care of one’s self is what is most important.

“I gained a lot of weight when I started college and it felt like I didn’t have ownership of it because I wasn’t taking care of myself. In my senior year I decided to make it mine again. When I was doing yoga, when I could stretch a little further and could notice these goals I was accomplishing with my body, I felt so in control. Even though I never felt like the quintessential beauty in the media, I was starting to feel healthy and I was inhabiting my body again, and I think that control is really what gave me so much more confidence and helped me love who I am.” -Kate

In Progress:

I had lots of trouble finding women of color to participate in this project at the onset, which is why the three completed dolls are all white. Late last week, however, I convinced a girl, Gabby, from one of my classes to meet with me. She did a photoshoot with me and brought two of her friends, so I achieved my goal of having a diverse panel of opinions and experiences on issues of body. Because I did not find these participants until recently and I am doing this project in conjunction with my history class (final due Monday 5/15), I have not yet completed the dolls for these women but they are in progress!!! When all the dolls are finished I also intend to print them out 8.5×11 and insert them into actual paper dolls books in local toy stores in order to fill the requirement for the place project, and also so my dolls get exposure and hopefully some little girl will open this book and see my dolls which she can actually relate to. Documentation and all 6 completed dolls will be posted soon!!!



“I wrestled in high school, which really messed me up in terms of body image because your success if dependent on weight class and you become just a number. Loving my body has always been hard in terms of being feminine and not having traditionally feminine features, especially when it comes to my hair and broad shoulders. I have always been athletic so what I have really struggled with is not fitting that ideal African American body type of the feminine curvaceous woman. People have recently gained appreciation for bodies like Serena Williams and how beautiful she is, but that is still a lot of pressure for bodies like mine since when it comes to athleticism she is a perfect body. I am no longer trying to achieve the ‘perfect black body,’ super thin but curvy with a big butt, but it’s like my only other option is to be a Serena, which is still hard and equally unattainable.”


“I am a mixed African American and White woman but I grew up with my mom who is white. I didn’t get exposed to African American culture until I was 13, when I realized I didn’t fit the black stereotype of the tiny waist and the big butt. My mom has always had an athletic body type and wanted that for me, so I had that and not the curves of the ‘ideal’ African American woman. I have had to reconcile those different ideals and expectations for the bodies of black and white women all of my life. I have come to terms with my body a lot in my last two years of college; I let my hair go natural after relaxing my hair for at least 10 years and have come to accept my body shape and color as beautiful for what it is.”

Leave a Reply