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All dolled up: A peek into the surreal world of reborn baby lovers

Yesterday, my family and I went to a doll and teddy bear fair at Kelham Hall (near Newark). We went to see my relatives who had a couple of tables at the fair selling both dolls and teddy bears (my uncle Frank Webster is a renowned bear maker here in the UK). The reason I mention this is because I witnessed something I have never seen before – the sight of grown adults pushing around prams with one or more ‘reborn’ baby dolls. Although my late mother was a doll collector, I had never seen ‘reborn’ baby dolls before. In fact, there was one whole dedicated room at Kelham Hall just for reborn bay dolls. One of the stalls (Fairytales Reborn Nursery) featured baby dolls that looked so real that I even picked up their business cards and postcards featuring their products. However, it was the sight of middle to older age women (and one older aged couple) pushing around and playing with ‘reborn’ baby dolls that really caught my eye. I asked my aunt (who was there helping my uncle sell his bears) if this was unusual and they told me that ‘reborn mothers’ were a common site at such events.

I am well aware of men who have a sexually paraphilic interest in lifelike adult dolls (that I examined in a previous blog on doll fetishism), but I had never come across a non-sexual interest in lifelike baby dolls among (what appeared to be mainly) women. In fact, my only real “experience” of women treating babies as if they were real was Dawn French’s portrayal of the midwife Joy Aston in the weird but wonderful BBC comedy thriller series Psychoville. In the television series, Aston had a son who died of a cot death. As a way of coping, Aston treats a baby doll (‘Freddy’) as if it is her own child son, forcing her on-screen husband George (played by Steve Pemberton) to help her look after their ‘son’. My partner (jokingly I think) said that the topic of ‘reborn’ baby doll parents would make a good blog, so as soon as I got back home from the doll fair, I was straight onto the internet looking at what was out there on the phenomenon.

The first thing I came across after finding dedicated magazines to lifelike dolls (such as Lifelike Doll Magazine), highlights how realistic the reborn baby dolls look. In Australia, a story in The Courier-Mail reported ‘Frantic rescue effort saves doll, not baby’. The story recalled how Australian police had smashed in a car window in the region of Gympie (Queensland) to rescue what was thought to be an unconscious baby locked inside the car but turned out to be a lifelike doll. A similar incident occurred in the US. The Australian news report said that:

“Selling for up to $1000, the painstakingly hand-painted dolls were so lifelike with eyelashes, fingernails, milk spots and wispy hair that they were constantly fooling people…They’re even weighted to feel like a baby’s weight and they flop like a baby. The dolls can even come with umbilical cords, cord clamps and their own birth certificates. They are so realistic, people do become attached to them”.

The Wikipedia entry on reborn dolls notes that:

“A reborn doll is a manufactured vinyl doll that has been transformed to resemble a human baby with as much realism as possible. The process of creating a reborn doll is referred to as reborning and the doll artists are referred to as reborners. Reborn dolls are also known as living dolls or unliving dolls. The hobby of creating reborn baby dolls began around 1990 when doll enthusiasts wanted more realistic dolls. Since then, an industry surrounding reborn dolls has emerged. Reborn dolls are primarily purchased on the internet but are available at fairs”

Another 2008 story entitled ‘Bogus baby boom: Women who collect lifelike dolls’ was reported by NBC News. The article featured an interview with Lynn Katsaris, an artist who had created well over 1,000 reborn dolls and then sold them to women around the world. Since being created in the US the article claimed that the reborn baby dolls were being sold on eBay for between $500 to $4,000. The article reported:

Some people find the lifelike dolls downright creepy. But collectors, some of whom treat the dolls as real children, feel there’s nothing unusual about their passionate hobby…The vinyl dolls don’t just look exactly like real babies – they also feel real. Their bodies are stuffed and weighted to have the same heft and a similar feel to a live baby. Mohair is normally used for the hair and is rooted in the head strand by strand, a process that can take 30 hours. A magnet may be placed inside the mouth to hold a magnetic pacifier. To add realism, some purchasers opt for a heartbeat and a device that makes the chest rise and fall to simulate breathing…Some customers order special dolls that are exact replicas of their own children who died at birth or in infancy. These are individually made from hand-sculpted clay forms made from photographs of the child. The customers are almost all women. Some buy them because they collect dolls. Others buy them as surrogates for children that were lost or have grown and left the home. Some women dress the dolls, wash their hair, take them for walks in strollers and take them shopping”

A lot of the coverage of the reborn baby doll phenomenon relates to the television documentary My Fake Baby (that was first aired in the UK on Channel 4 back in January 2008, and directed by Victoria Silver). The programme examined what made grown women spend so much money on the lifelike dolls that although bizarre to some, brings great rewards to the women involved”.
The programme showed that some of the reborn dolls have tiny veins, beating hearts, and milk spots. The documentary showed case studies of women who loved the reborn dolls as if they were real babies (e.g., cuddling them, taking them for walks, changing their nappies, etc.). Women in the programme who bought the dolls included women with grown-up children, grandmothers living away from their grandchildren, and women who have left it too late to have their own babies. For instance, one of the women featured (Sue) is a self-confessed perfectionist who says she would love to have the perfect baby but knows that the real thing can be “messy, noisy and unpredictable”. Sue is seen buying designer clothes from Harrods especially for her reborn baby doll. Another woman (Christine) has a reborn baby created in the likeness of her grandson Harry. Harry lived thousands of miles away, but Christine longed for the days when she cared for Harry a newborn. Reaction to the programme (positive and negative) can be found from doll collectors (such as those on Our Doll Community website) and new mothers (such as those on the Baby and Bump Momstastic website). Other case studies of ‘reborners’ were featured on the US show Dr. Phil. There are even reports of reborn baby dolls being made to order into vampires and zombies (check out the story by Today if you are interested).

Academically, there doesn’t appear to be much written or researched on the phenomenon. A.F. Robertson wrote a whole book on dolls (Life Like Dolls: The Collector Doll Phenomenon and the Lives of the Women Who Love Them), but concentrates on porcelain dolls rather than reborn baby dolls. Michele White wrote an interesting chapter entitled ‘Babies who touch you: Reborn dolls, artists, and the emotive display of bodies on eBay’ in the 2010 book Political Emotions. The chapter describes the phenomenon via an analysis of over 300 listings of reborns being sold on the online auction site eBay. She notes that:

“Individuals use the terms ‘reborn’ and ‘reborning’ to describe the processes of making dolls alive, or life-like. This is related to the tendency among doll collectors, as Alexander Foster Robertson suggests of treating the object ‘as a real little person’. The people involved in reborning describe themselves as artists and mothers, indicate that their dolls are ‘adoptions’ and do complicated work in remaking the meaning and values of these objects”.

In her conclusions, White also makes the observation that:

“Women produce an intense and supportive reborn culture but their practices are often denigrated in blogs and Internet forums. Women are labeled as ‘sick’ and ‘morons’, and equated to pedophiles…Victoria Silver’s My Fake Baby (2008) documentary, which made the processes of reborning better known, often informs people’s negative reactions, for the director also unsympathetically depicts participants choosing the cleanliness of reborn babies over the messiness of corporeal babies, presenting their reborn dolls as children, and replacing an absent grandchild with a reborn replica. Reborn dolls trouble understandings of the human because they are often misrecognized as babies when left in cars and other places, women describe them as babies, the boundary distinctions between mother and child are not maintained, and women purportedly deviate from human behavior in mothering them”.

I’m sure the blog I have written here feeds into the negative stereotypes that White talks about in her book chapter. (However, in my defence, there are other blogs that are far more negative than mine such as those on the Stroller Derby website). Amanda Edwards in a recent January 2013 article for Voxxi went as far as to assert:

“A rising number of women around the world are succumbing to the strange addiction of collecting and caring for dolls that look eerily like newborn babies…In the field of mental health, to summarize plainly, a hobby brings joy while an obsession brings destruction…Collecting dolls is absolutely an acceptable hobby, one that dates back hundreds of years and provides work and fulfillment for many people. The fascination with the reborn doll movement is that it’s not simply about collecting and creating these dolls as a hobby, it’s about providing care for them, nurturing them, and sometimes, choosing them over family…Recently, Voxxi reported about Alice Winston, a woman that collects these dolls and has lost her husband in part due to her emotional connection to her “babies.” Despite having five children of her own, she stated that, ‘No relationship will ever come between me and my babies, and I wouldn’t give them up for my children’. Clearly, a woman who chooses her doll collection over her relationships with her husband and children has an obsession”.

Based on what I have read, none of the most extreme cases appear to be what I would define as an addiction, but that doesn’t mean that no-one has ever developed a problem. At the very least, I can now visit doll fairs and call it research!

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Celizic, M. (2008). Bogus baby boom: Women who collect lifelike dolls. NBC Today News, January 10. Located at: http://www.nbcnews.com/id/26970782/site/todayshow/ns/today-today_news/t/bogus-baby-boom-women-who-collect-lifelike-dolls/#.USEZMqk72fR

Edwards, A. (2013). Reborn dolls: When a hobby becomes an obsession. Voxxi, January 17. Located at: http://www.voxxi.com/reborn-dolls-hobby-obsession/

Green, G. (2008). Frantic rescue effort saves doll, not baby. The Courier-Mail, July 15. Located at: http://www.news.com.au/national-old/frantic-rescue-effort-saves-doll-not-baby/story-e6frfkwr-1111116912747

O’Reilly, A. (2008). My Fake Baby. The F Word. January 4. Located at: http://www.thefword.org.uk/blog/2008/01/my_fake_baby

Robertson, A.F. (2003). Life Like Dolls: The Collector Doll Phenomenon and the Lives of the Women Who Love Them. London: Routledge.

White, M. (2010). Babies who touch you: Reborn dolls, artists, and the emotive display of bodies on eBay. In J. Staiger, A. Cvetkovich, & A. Reynolds (Eds.), Political Emotions. London: Routledge.

Wikipedia (2013). Reborn doll. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reborn_doll