Warning: Discussions of miscarriages, child loss and mental illness
In nurseries across the globe, light filters in. The babies in their cribs remain silent, but this is to be expected. In craft stations worldwide, eyeless heads and limbs jut from stands, but no police will be called. This is their norm. These are the lives of reborn dolls, their artists, and their “parents.”
A reborn doll is a realistic doll, often one of a kind (OOAK) and custom-made. They are often called “reborn babies”. They are typically made to resemble infants, usually human, and can look shockingly real. It is important to note, though, that many extend the term “reborn baby” to factory-made ones, mostly from Paradise Galleries or Ashton Drake. Alternative and fantasy reborns — ranging from zombies, to clowns, to elves — are also becoming increasingly popular.
This is not a cheap hobby: dolls are typically between several hundred to several thousand dollars, not including any accessories. Usually made from a soft vinyl or silicone, dolls commonly come as pre-made factory kits, although rarely, a sculptor can make a custom (and truly one of a kind) one to paint. They take weeks, even months, to create. Many layers of paint are carefully added, with unique designs and details added. Eyes are carefully set and hair is rooted in a few strands at a time. Lastly, many reborns are weighted to feel more realistic, often in the limbs and in cloth bodies. However, after all the work, the artist is left with a doll that should last a lifetime with proper care.
Earlier in the year, pictures of a doll, named Britton Rose, and her many adventures circulated across social media, inciting mockery, confusion and disgust. “Doesn’t this fully grown woman know that it’s just a doll?”, “She’s seriously psycho. Absolute nutcase” and “This is way too creepy” were some of the criticisms.
The reborn community lives on the fringes, deemed “too weird” and “too creepy.” They often refer to themselves as the parents, and the dolls as their babies. Some even roleplay with their “children,” buying clothing and furniture, changing and feeding them, and ultimately treating them as though they were alive. To reborn parents, the dolls aren’t just toys: they’re pieces of art or an extension of their family. For many, they choose to engage the community through the Internet or conventions, as they may face discrimination from friends, family and strangers. Like many other niches, reborn parents are labeled “crazy” and their lives are mocked. Social media site Reddit has several subsections dedicated to laughing at the community. Some only cringe at the dolls, while others go further to insult the parents.
Strangely enough, some dolls on there are nearly worshipped and achieved celebrity status. Britton Rose and Lola the elf have dozens of posts taken from their Instagram and republished, with people claiming these dolls are their “spirit animals” and taking teams of either one. Largely, though, the subreddit is composed of people cringing or laughing at dolls, or in rarer cases, downright insulting and ridiculing the parents. For some, these lifelike dolls are too realistic (and therefore creepy), and their parents are too strange.
Despite the cruelty, there is a scientific reason why some are left so uncomfortable and weirded out. Uncanny valley is a recorded phenomena of feeling unsettled after viewing or being exposed to things closely resemble humans, but aren’t “convincingly realistic.
An alternative reborn
For every hate message and critique, there are shocking benefits to reborn dolls! Their realism and weight can trick the mind into thinking that they are holding a real, live baby, which in turn, triggers the release of a feel-good hormone called oxytocin. While some use the dolls strictly for artistic, collector, or playing purposes, many reborn parents choose to use them for therapeutic reasons. Benefits have been recorded for countless groups, but they are especially useful for those with mental illness such as anxiety or depression, or those who have suffered the loss of an infant or child. Even for those beyond these scopes, the dolls can simply be relaxing to hold and clothe, or fulfill emotional needs for children. Their realism, while producing instability and fear in some, soothes the mind in others. Instagram user abbies_bubba_boy writes of her doll Charley:
“My Charley has helped me so much. I’ve had reborns for almost nine years but since getting Charley in August, I’ve had less anxiety. I can leave the house by myself (well, with him) and I seem to have less anger and hatred towards the world. It’s mad how one thing has made me feel like a normal person and has helped me feel like myself again.”
Amazingly enough, the therapeutic reborn dolls extend beyond those living with mental illness, trauma, etc., and go into nursing homes. They can help with several dementia or Alzheimer’s symptoms if used in early stages, by providing a sense of comfort and “being needed”. They no longer consider themselves useless; they have a “baby” to care for! Instagram user rebornswithreasons (who also has Britton Rose!) works with these nursing homes to assist the senior community, and frequently posts videos and pictures of the residents cooing and singing to the dolls. However, it is worth mentioning that some mental health professionals urge caution in certain situations, such as an attempt to fully replace a passed child with a doll.
I had the opportunity to speak with members in the community, in order to get a better understanding of what life is like with them.
Life with Reborn Babies
Name: Dawn VanScoyk
Instagram: kissesnsnuggles and mythicalworld_lola.the.elf
Time spent in community: About one year
Number of dolls: Soon to be five, plus my silicone elfie
Names of dolls: Coralynn Grace, Aiden James, Ellie Mei, Emery Jade, fifth one to be determined. Silicone elfie is named Lola Penelope
Photo by Dawn VanScoyk
Time spent in community: Six years
Number of dolls: 40
Names of dolls: Moon Sparkle, Marney, Marley, Marty, Marky, Calyope, Carla, Clara, Autumn, Lauren, Katie, Alaska, Peaches, Wyatt, Illyanne, Israel, Isadora, Mateo, Maddox, Skylee, Macy, Meadow, Willow, Jordan, Brandy, Kaylene, Khelani, Liam, Kaycianne, MacKenzie, Addison, Franklin, Eugene, Penelope, Primrose, America, Brayden, Scott, Travis, Isaac
What’s your story?
Dawn: I am a 49 year old that absolutely goes wild over babies! My reborn babies help me to cope with severe depression and anxiety. I am not in any sense of the word “crazy.” I know that my reborn babies are just dolls. I personally don’t do anything “out of the ordinary” with my babies. I have five different babies from five different artists and I love the differences in the painting techniques. I find it so interesting how two artists can paint the same kit and it turn out looking so differently! My dolls are used as coping mechanisms. I have had depression and anxiety for several years and they really are helping me through that. I hold them and cuddle them and change their clothes to take pictures of them to share on Instagram. I don’t have a room dedicated to them and I don’t take them out to stores and such but a lot of collectors do and that’s ok! I wish there was a way to let the world know just how helpful these dolls are to people. Hopefully this interview will help people better understand the importance of these dolls to people’s health and to stop jumping to conclusions about us all being crazy.
Patti: I’ve always loved dolls. Not just regulars, but alternative dolls as well. In my collection, I have zombies, creative personals, trolls and I am getting ready to make a mummy. My youngest daughter, who is very afraid of dolls, bought me a kit because she saw them and thought I would be good and like making them. I was hooked.
How important are your reborns to you?
Dawn: My reborns are important to me but my real kids are the most important and always will be. If I had to get rid of my reborns I would definitely be upset and down about it, but at the end of the day, they are just material things. I do feel love for them, but it’s different from the love I feel for another human being.
Patti: They are part of my life. They are a wonderful conversation starter but mostly they help me deal with my own cancer and my husband’s death from cancer.
Do you have children? If so, why own reborn dolls?
Dawn: I do have children. I have a six year old and an 18 year old. They aren’t babies anymore and don’t allow me to cuddle them anymore. I can’t explain the feeling of holding and cuddling a baby! It’s an awesome feeling that helps me cope with depression, anxiety and life in general.
Patti: Yes, I have grown children and grandchildren. To me, it is more of a hobby and stress relief.
Photo by Dawn VanScoyk
What do you want people to know?
Dawn: I would like for people to know that reborn dolls are pieces of art. They are hand-painted and take days to complete. They’re not just some doll made by a machine. They are made with love and care. Reborns help so many people with various things in their lives. We aren’t crazy; we don’t think they are real. But holding a baby and caring for them is soothing and comforting and rewarding, especially when you have lost a child or cannot have children or you have various health problems like dementia, Alzheimer’s, anxiety and depression. They are used as a coping mechanism. More people need to be educated on the use of these dolls instead of just automatically thinking we are all crazies!
Why do you think there is such a negative opinion of the reborn community?
Dawn: I think it is because people just don’t understand what these dolls do for people. Reborns are therapy dolls. They are used in Alzheimer’s units to calm and bring some life back into those older folks. They actually can resort back to themselves just by holding and talking to these babies. I would say that at least 90-95 percent, or maybe even higher, of reborn collectors are collecting because they have some sort of depression or anxiety or some kind of illness, and reborns help them through it. Also, they help people to get through the loss of a real baby. There are also collectors who like dolls and they just display them. Reborns are pieces of art. It isn’t easy to paint them and make them look like they are supposed to look. It takes talent and a ton of time. It is just misunderstood and people don’t take the time to understand it.
Patti: I think people choose to find negatives about any hobby mostly to make themselves feel better by trying to act like they are better.
What do people get wrong about the community?
Dawn: People tend to think reborn collectors are weird or crazy and that we think our dolls are real. That’s not the case at all. Some people like dolls and have them displayed while others, like myself, have them for depression and anxiety and enjoy holding them while watching TV. There’s nothing as soothing as cuddling a baby. I can’t express the whole THERAPY thing associated with reborns enough! Also, I think that maybe the word “community” might lead some to think of it as a cult or some kind of weird gathering of sorts. All the reborn “community” is, is people all over the world who collect and display (like anything else) reborn dolls or who use the dolls as therapy.
Does anyone truly believe that the babies are alive? Or does everyone know and understand that they are, in fact, dolls?
Dawn: I can honestly say, we all know these babies are just dolls! I’ve never come across anybody who truly thinks their dolls are real babies. That’s not to say there’s not anybody in the world that does think that way though.
Patti: I am reminded of the movie The Truth About Emanuel and so I am sure there mentally impaired people out there, but mostly I think it is grown ups playing with dolls.
Subreddits dedicated to laughing at the dolls, and in some cases, the owners, have been popping up lately. Have you, or anyone you know, had their pictures stolen and put up there? How do you react? What do you have to say about it?
Dawn: As a matter of fact, my pictures get stolen and put on a subreddit everytime I post on my baby elf’s account. I personally don’t mind but there have been others who have really gotten angry about it and reported them and got the pictures removed.
Patti: Not me, but someone on my Facebook. I think it is cruel and hateful. Just because you don’t understand something doesn’t make it okay to be a bully.
In uncanny valley, people get creeped out by things that are humanoid, but not 100 percent human. Do you think this is the only reason why people are a bit wary, or is there something else?
Dawn: Maybe a bit, but I think it has to do with grown adults playing with dolls. People usually think about little kids when they think of dolls, and adults having them doesn’t seem politically correct. So they start to judge and think that we are automatically crazy, when in fact, they just need to be informed of the reasons behind collecting reborns and how they help people get through life challenges.
From the outside peeking in, grown adults playing dollies may seem strange, but there is so much comfort that they receive. These reborn dolls offer so much to their owners, even if it means getting a few creeped out stares. In the end, though, how can we fault those looking for some beautiful art or therapeutic benefits?
I would like to extend a huge thank you to the reborn doll community for allowing me to experience life from your perspectives. There is much to be learned from you, including tolerance, acceptance and peace. I extend special acknowledgements to abbies_bubua_boy, beautifulbutterflyreborns125, rebornswithreasons, kissesnsnuggles/mythicalworld_lola.the.elf, zorticias_reborn_world, maylovesmetal and everyone else who has shared their pictures, experiences or encouragements with me!