One Woman’s Quest to Open Minds by Showcasing Female Storytellers

In 1998, Pia Guerrero co-founded Adios Barbie, a volunteer-run website that publishes personal essays by American girls and women that explore identity and diversity. Today, she looks way ahead of her time.

Candice Helfand-Rogers By Candice Helfand-Rogers

Pia Guerrero, co-founder of Adios Barbie.

Pia Guerrero, co-founder of Adios Barbie.

Pia Guerrero believes in the power of stories. And since 1998, she has been sharing the very personal stories of women as they explore the realities of racial, cultural and sexual identity.

When she co-founded the feminist website where she publishes those stories, it was by all measures ahead of its time. Adios Barbie — its name, an irreverent dismissal of the sky-high beauty standards set by the classic doll — was born during the internet’s early days and was one of only three national sites exploring body image — not to mention, the only one making space for a range of cultural perspectives, she says.

“We felt there was a real lack of resources, and these conversations were not happening anywhere. So we decided to put that together.”

Guerrero was onto something — Adios Barbie was an instant hit, she says. It quickly gained popularity and received attention from media outlets like MSNBC, The New York Times, Al-Jazeera and Seventeen magazine for both its content and use of a new medium. At the height of its popularity, it averaged 100,000 visitors per month.

Writers for Adios Barbie explore how various communities and people with different types of bodies are represented in the media, covering topics like disabilities, gender roles, weight and sexuality. They do so through both articles that break down these issues in depth and personal essays that explore their impact on individuals’ lives.

Nearly 20 years on, the internet is ubiquitous and the issues the site addresses have become more mainstream. But the site continues to spark feminist conversation, with Guerrero still at the helm. “We managed to stay afloat while everything changed around us,” Guerrero says.

Starting With Girls’ Voices

The first seeds for Adios Barbie were planted in 1997, when Guerrero was leading a writing program for public-school students in San Francisco. Called “Our Schools, Our Media,” the program amplified her concerns about the messages that her students were absorbing from TV shows, advertising and other media.

“I was working with all kinds of kids, mostly low-income black and Latino students,” she says, as well as some Russian and Croatian immigrants. “I started noticing how culture affected them — it was so much, and they were so young.”

Themes around identity emerged frequently in their writing, Guerrero says. The girls were especially worried about their appearance, and often wrote about their struggles with their bodies. They also talked about the diets they were on and about saving money to pay for cosmetic procedures.

Guerrero wanted her students to dig into these themes, and decided to use the program as a platform where the girls could speak their minds. Soon, she had arranged to have their completed works published in community newspapers once a month, which got her students’ work in front of hundreds of thousands of readers. “I was seeing the power of folks getting their voice, and what they could do in terms of being seen.”

She decided to try to expand their visibility even further by launching a website. Her friend Sharon Haywood had recently published a series of essays collectively titled “Adios Barbie” and suggested turning Guerrero’s idea into an online destination using the same name. Haywood, who had basic HTML skills, became a co-founder and helped build the site, while Guerrero curated content.

To get the word out, Guerrero turned to another fledgling technology tool: social media. She made a home for the site on new channels as they became available — first Facebook, where it now has over 15,000 followers; then Twitter, where just about 8,000 fans engage; and Instagram, which has close to 1,000 subscribers — each of which has brought the site to new audiences. Guerrero says she has been especially successful with Twitter chats that she holds in collaboration with partner organizations like the National Eating Disorders Association.

But while Adios Barbie has a large and vocal presence, its operations have remained intentionally small. Guerrero says she has passed on high-profile opportunities that didn’t align with the organization’s values and has avoided most advertising opportunities to maintain autonomy over the site’s content. She says these choices have helped keep the site a manageable size for its small volunteer staff.

Of course, during the course of its nearly 2 decades of existence, much has changed. Haywood left to start a business in 2012, while Guerrero stayed on and recruited a stable of volunteer editors and writers. Today, the core staff is comprised of two editors and five writers — a rotating cast of interns “who come and pretty much run the site with me for 6 months.” It has been an effective way of keeping Adios Barbie functional and relevant, while allowing her to pursue additional projects.

Dedicated to Effecting Change

Outside of Adios Barbie, Guerrero has built a robust career in fundraising and community organizing. Growing up in Santa Monica, Calif., and Mexico City, she never imagined starting anything of her own. “But in college, as I began working on my own art and film projects, in addition to running a student business, I started to get a taste for entrepreneurship,” she says.

After graduating from the University of California at San Diego in 1995 with a degree in visual arts and media, she worked in a variety of roles at arts and activist organizations. Her resume includes prominent positions at the East Bay Center for Performing Arts; activist site Feminist.com; Turning Heads, which promotes youth empowerment through entrepreneurship; and GirlSource, which taught job skills to low-income high school girls and young mothers.

Guerrero has also led workshops on topics including media literacy, body diversity and eating disorders at conferences around the country. And, she got to flex her storytelling muscles for several years at SheHeroes, another digital effort that tells the stories of women occupying nontraditional roles, particularly in science, math, engineering and technology.

In addition to introducing video content to the SheHeroes site, Guerrero says she relished the opportunity to harness the power of storytelling to effect change. She recalls, as an example, an interview with a pediatric heart surgeon whose passion moved Guerrero deeply. “That was part of my drive there — to share stories not just about what a woman does, or how it’s done,” but what inspired her in the first place.

New Ways to Share New Voices

Guerrero recently stepped down from her role at SheHeroes to focus on her next adventure — the pursuit of a master’s degree in social work from the University of Southern California.

She is midway through her first year, with high hopes of finding new ways to empower people after she graduates. “I will probably end up going into working with the elderly,” she says. “After 70, people start becoming invisible,” so amplifying their voices and spotlighting their achievements is especially important.

And, she intends to keep Adios Barbie going, although the project is changing now that the culture has largely caught up and embraced its long-held beliefs in the value of diversity, of all kinds of bodies, and of safety from sexual harassment.

“Right now, there is so much in mainstream media about identity politics and feminism. And with this turning point with sexual harassment that we’re in, I don’t feel like we have so much of a unique voice anymore,” Guerrero says, noting that the site’s monthly traffic has dropped to about 35,000 hits per month. In response, she plans to shift the site’s focus slightly to emphasize and expand the mentoring opportunities it offers to budding writers and editors.

Indeed, Guerrero still cares about the individuals who are gaining voices thanks to the site — and about their stories. Adios Barbie has been a home for women who share everything from ruminations on the ages of male leads and their female love interests to their private thoughts on having plastic surgery or going gray.

She wants to ensure that those voices, and many others, have a platform for as long as she’s able to provide one.

Posted: December 22, 2017

Candice Helfand-RogersOne Woman’s Quest to Open Minds by Showcasing Female Storytellers