Reborn Dolls Are Unboxed Into A World Fraught With Judgment

The women who collect hyperrealistic dolls face a level of judgment on YouTube and Instagram that other collectors don't

Ronda Cox applies paint to the lips of a doll. — Getty Images
Jun 24, 2016 at 6:00 AM ET

If, while poking around YouTube one day, you find yourself staring at what looks like a real baby’s face wrapped tightly in bubble wrap—do not be alarmed. It’s almost certainly a doll. But not just any doll. It’s a reborn doll, a silicone creation made to look as much like a real human baby as possible, and it’s the star of its own subgenre of what’s known as the “unboxing video.”

Reborn dolls are just one of the dozens of things you can find being unboxed on YouTube. Sneakers, Xboxes, iPhone, and any number of popular children’s toys. You name it, and it’s probably being pulled out of a box by somebody somewhere online, for dozens, thousands, or even millions of viewers.

But when you stumble across a reborn unboxing, it catches your attention in a way the unwrapping of a tech gadget would not. First of all, a reborn unwrapping is done very slowly, ritualistically, even.

There’s the box opening and the unfurling of the doll’s papers.

And then the clothes and toys that come as part of the kit.

Once all of those tasks are completed, you get to the actual doll’s body, often starting with an appreciation of the cuteness and craftsmanship of the doll’s exceptionally-realistic hands and feet.

The big moment comes when the unboxer finally unwraps the head. In many of the videos, the unboxers act as if they are meeting a person for the first time.

They anthropomorphize the doll by speaking to it in baby talk and referring to it by its newly-assigned name. Like it’s a person. But it’s not a person; at the end of the day, these are inanimate collectibles, just as alive as any toy or electronic gizmo.

To some the dolls are creepy, and to others they’re beautiful—much like the actual newborns they’re built to resemble. The idea that they’re “children” is furthered by the inclusion of a birth certificate and even adoption papers in the doll’s box. “Adopting” one of these dolls from the artists who make them can cost hundreds of dollars, and that’s not including any clothes or accessories you want to kit yours out with.

Reborns have gotten a lot of gawking publicity in the last few years, largely because some people treat them as real babies, building them nurseries and carting them around in public. (They’re so realistic they’ve also been used as therapy dolls for people who’ve lost their own babies and for patients with dementia.) But most “parents” of reborn dolls simply buy them because they like them.

As a result, a vast community of reborn enthusiasts now exists. The explosion in their popularity has largely been fueled by the ability to buy and share these dolls and accessories online. There are dozens and dozens of Facebook groups (many of which have thousands of members) dedicated to reborn collecting, as well several large online forums. Hundreds of artists make reborn dolls; many their work on Ebay, where more than 13,000 dolls are for sale right now.

In much the same way that a delivery room photo is a rite of passage for new parents, unboxing videos are a big part reborn doll culture. There are hundreds of thousands of reborn-related videos on YouTube alone. They’re so popular because they allow people to see a variety of dolls and get ideas about what they might want to add to their collections. This is crucial for a collectible that’s not typically available in retail stores and where each individual artist has an individual style. It also lets people who can’t afford to buy their own reborns participate on some level.

The creators and stars of these videos are almost all women and young girls. Many first became interested in reborns by watching videos themselves. That was that case with Sophie, a collector who posts under the name RebornDays on YouTube and Instagram. Vocativ spoke to the 22-year-old Englishwoman, who currently has 15 dolls in her collection. She told us she learned about the dolls from watching the videos and began connecting with other fans, “I was into watching box openings, like seeing what people get and then the reborn itself. So I started making them, and it kind of went from there… Then I found the community on Instagram.”

Naturally, several hefty grains of salt are required when analyzing any YouTube commenters—and people on the internet in general—but Sophie told us that her seemingly-innocent hobby regularly inspires strangers to reach out and insult her. Here are a few common refrains, “People calling me crazy. The dolls are scary. I’m insane and need help. Why don’t I just have a real baby, which is my personal favorite.”

There are loads of clips featuring people feeding the dolls and changing their diapers (often with some kind of baby food standing in for the mess in the diaper). While it may seem odd, treating a fake baby as if it was a human, these people are using the doll for its intended purposes. It’s not all that different from grown men posting themselves playing video games on YouTube.

But what is different about reborns compared to other collectibles that are being opened on camera is the way people react to them. Most unboxing videos, say of a Playstation or a pair on sneakers, are followed by a string of positive comments admiring the object. Reborn videos, while eliciting plenty of praise too, also seem to attract more criticism than normal. Here are just two samples from a totally random reborn video on YouTube: “Some people are dementedly sick who plays with dolls like if they were real!” and “This all scares me. It’s just, adopt a child! Have a child (if you can)! Stop freaking people put with your fake babies!”

As a student, Sophie said she’s not ready for a baby—and especially not 15. And she doesn’t see the dolls as a substitute for actual children: “To me they are just a collection. I find them cute, not creepy, and like putting them in cute outfits and taking photos for Instagram.” To hear her talk about it, it’s a hobby like any other. And she said the vast majority of the other collectors she’s met online feel the same way.

Still, there’s something about these dolls that causes people to pass harsh judgments on the grown women who collect them. (The young girls who do these videos mostly seem to get a free pass.) Maybe it’s the the “adoption” papers, the names, and the clothes—it all blurs the line between reality and fiction. Or maybe it’s the strange juxtaposition of a person cooing over what looks like a baby and then flipping it into a totally unnatural position (that would be dangerous to a real child) to carefully inspect its paint job. Or in this amusing case, changing out a the doll’s body parts in the background:

That video was posted by Stephanie Ortiz, a popular reborn YouTuber, who often gets vitriolic comments on her videos. But interestingly, in a recent interview with the New York Post, she said she doesn’t have the same problem when she’s out in the world with her dolls: “Interactions in public are amazing. I’ve never had any negative comments.”

Even with the hefty dose of criticism that often comes along with being online, people who choose to share their passion for reborns with the rest of the world are finding a community with other collectors and the artists who craft the dolls. There are the Facebook groups (most of them closed to keep haters at bay) and YouTube channels. Instagram is another popular gathering place, and it’s proved an ideal medium for showing off babies in cute outfits (whether those babies are of the silicone or human variety). The doll makers do a brisk trade on Ebay, but so do people looking to trade out their “babies” for other models and looking to buy inexpensive clothes and accessories for their dolls.

As it has for many things, the Internet has opened up what likely would have been a insular community of hobbyists to a particular brand of ridicule from strangers who don’t—and don’t want to—understand what they’re seeing. For Sophie, the stream of abusive comments has led her to keep her online life largely separate from her real life. While her live-in boyfriend and her family know, she’s afraid to tell all but her closest friends about her interest in reborns. When asked why, she said it was because we live in, “Such a judgmental society, and anything that’s different or people don’t understand is considered scary, creepy, or wrong. So I just cant be bothered with the hassle just because I collect dolls.”

It’s hard to imagine anyone saying something similar about their passion for sneakers or iPhones.