The early sexualisation of children through adult-style clothing, exposure to near-pornographic music videos, and dodgy pre-watershed TV story-lines is a huge worry for many parents - but how can you put the brakes on children - particularly girls - growing up too fast?
Entrepreneur Kym Yorke thinks she may have the answer. 'Notalie' is a tall, gangly companion doll which Kym hopes will encourage girls to stay younger for longer through creative play and confidence in their individuality.
We met Kym - and Notalie - and got the lowdown on Kym's vision for this very unique toy.
About four years ago I was explaining to my husband about a soft sculpture I'd made years ago for my interview at Central St Martins. It was a long figure with big feet and big hands and I tied it into lots of different knotted shapes and photographed it. I was very arty farty in those days and went to my interview with it wrapped round my neck. They thought it was amazing! My husband said "I don't know that the hell you are talking about" so I went upstairs and made one and he thought it was interesting!
And that's how Notalie was 'born'?
Well, I suddenly saw this girl and I thought I could make knotty elbows and knotty knees and things, and then I saw this face of a bored tween, you know, not a 'doll' look but a real sort of girl... so I got my sewing machine out, got some fabric together and made the first 'Notalie'.
How can you see Notalie appealing to young girls?
I have two nieces and when they were about 9 and 11 - and there is quite a difference in those two years – I would watch them being very sophisticated and confident on the outside, and all 'I know what life's all about' but not really having a clue. They'd be at their happiest at home in their bedrooms with their cuddly toys and all the things they'd loved for years. I started to do a lot of research and found there is a movement in America to develop taller dolls because girls play with them for longer - they are starting to throw away Barbies and things like that at the age of 7 which is far too young because they need to have some creative play for a lot longer. If dolls are taller, they start to see them as one of them.
How would you like to see girls utilising Notalie?
I would like to use Notalie as a vehicle to sort of empower young girls to believe in themselves and their own abilities, think for themselves and take responsibility for their own actions. She is deliberately funny looking, she is very gangly, she has funny knotty knees and elbows, a really funny face, and she needs to use that as a real positive because it makes her an individual - and she likes to be different.
Do you think that will appeal to girls? Don't most little girls want fashion type dolls to dress up?
I think there is room for a girl like Notalie who is a real girl of today and who could be part of the gang, do everything that the girls do, sleepovers and everything. Because of her size - she about the size of a 5 year - she can wear clothes, she can wear the bracelets and necklaces if you want her to, and hair accessories and that sort of thing. But in all the research that I have done with her, they just grab her and embrace her as a friend.
How different was the first one to the one that's gone into production?
The first Notalie had very big lashes and beads in her hair and individual fingers but for health and safety, I had to get rid of those.
How did you choose what she would wear?
I would describe her clothes as like Next Directory outfits, so she will wear little denim skirts and maybe a sort of crop top and leggings, but she wont be wearing inappropriate stuff. She's got party dresses anddenim shorts, so things that normal girls would wear. Definitly not inappropriate - no padded bras or anything like that. But she is a girl and she loves fashion!
I notice she has painted finger nails...
We had a debate about that and when we started, she had painted toenails as well because she was older, but as I did more and more research on her, I found that much younger children really really loved her and I am not saying that teenagers won't have her as a cool thing in their room but younger kids will really play with her. But the nails - I think it is a sad fact that little girls like painting their nails and every little girl I know, usually from a good home, paints their nails so...
What about pierced ears?
Well, I have had girls say - when I had the original one who had earrings in - 'oh, she's 11' and I would say 'Really? Why do you think that?' and they would reply because she has pierced ears and you only have that at 11! But this one does not have pierced ears.
Notalie is going to retail at £45 – do you not think that will only make her appeal to a certain market? Is she not a bit middle-class?
I think she works on different levels, because people take it just as a dolly. She is a different fun doll that people like to play with but, you are right, the more serious parents will be the ones who latch on to the almost parenting issues surrounding her, so I think it works on those levels too. We are in conversations high street retailers so she will be mass market. But I do think as well that the books and website side of her that will also be launched will appeal to everyone.
What other plans to you have for Notalie?
Well, as I said, she will have her website and books, and her dog Hitch. There will be other dolls in her 'knot' too, of different ethnicities, and I have got a health authority in Canada that is really interested in her to use with children who are badly damaged and mentally/traumatised and that sort of thing - they think she has got a real role as a friend and to help children express themselves and open up. We have got a lot of interest in the educational side here in England, too.
Where would you like to see Notalie five years down the line?
I would like there to be a Notalie Foundation that really makes a difference and has got some clout behind it. I would like to think that there is a generation of little girls who are starting to think for themselves and to behave properly and care. I don't see any reason why that can't happen, especially with the introduction of all the new characters. We have talked about her doing little films on YouTube and she is on Facebook and Twitter – only just starting out, but she is there!
What do you think of Notalie? Would she appeal to your daughter? Would you buy her?