After suffering a late-term miscarriage, Polish mother of four Katarzyna fell into a state of grief that felt insurmountable. Looking for ways to deal with the loss, she turned to the internet, and in the process came across a subculture that would change her life: women who create and collect hyper-realistic baby dolls. Known as reborn dolls, they are meticulously crafted by artists around the world and have realistic features that include pores, veins and tears – some even replicate the sound of a beating heart.
“Although she had four other children and of course loves them, she had this emptiness inside,” recalls Karolina Jonderko, a photographer whose project Reborn focuses on the powerful emotional response the dolls can offer women. While most of the people who own the dolls are collectors, they can also provide a therapeutic benefit for women who have lost children or are unable to have them, or who suffer from depression. For Katarzyna, the doll has become her fifth child and goes everywhere with the family, including the park, the supermarket and away on holiday. “She said she was supposed to leave the hospital with a baby in her hands,” says Jonderko. “She started browsing through the internet and found the dolls. And that’s how her doll became a part of the family.”
. . . It was on eBay, way back in 1999, that Kellie Eldred found the doll that would change her life. Stripped of its factorymade features, this doll had been remodeled by an artist – or, to use the collectors’ term, reborn – to better resemble an actual infant. Its torso had been weighted with flour; crayonbox approximations of flesh tones were painted over in the bruised pulp palette of living human skin. In the shape of its eyes, the doll bore a striking resemblance to Eldred’s daughter Lexi as a baby.
“I’d never seen or heard of anything like it,” says Eldred, who lives in New York with her husband and her two daughters, now adults. Though she agonised over its $100 price tag, she couldn’t get the doll out of her head. While she has since bought and sold dozens of other reborns, she still has her first.
Eldred belongs to a growing network of reborn doll buyers, sellers, creators and collectors. From Sydney to Manchester, Tokyo to San Jose, members can spend upwards of $22,000 for one doll to add to their nurseries. Some of these collectors, like Eldred, have children of their own; many don’t. Most are women. They meet in web forums and on Facebook, through YouTube channels and, of course, in the niche online marketplaces of Etsy and eBay.
In the more than two decades since Eldred discovered these dolls, the rise of social media has expanded the number of worldwide collectors by an order of magnitude. Today, more than 30,000 people subscribe to her YouTube channel, where videos of her cuddling, changing and talking about dolls have amassed more than 14 million views.
The proliferation of these lifelike dolls has led to innovations in their creation. Many of the latest dolls are custom-shaped from proprietary silicone blends and poured into moulds that, in some instances, have been sculpted in the likeness of real newborns.
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