Weighing five kilos (11 pounds), with perfectly combed hair and eyes closed in sleep, Abby looks like a baby girl. But she is a doll, adopted by a grieving mother to help come to terms with the loss of a child.
"She reminds me of my daughter as an infant," said Eve Hasty, a 57-year-old American who bought Abby from a British company for 300 dollars (210 euros).
’Reborn babies’, dolls which are made to look just like real babies, are displayed at the reborn babies fair in Brentwood, east of London, in February 2011. Weighing five kilos, with perfectly combed hair and her eyes closed in sleep, Abby looks like a baby girl. But she is a doll.
The retired driver who lives in Oklahoma lost her daughter to leukaemia when she only seven.
She has a surviving son in his 30s who has provided her with an eight-year-old granddaughter, but she finds the doll -- which she acquired in 2009, three decades after losing her daughter -- comforting.
"I just get a type of serenity about me when I hold her, I change her clothes," she told AFP.
Hasty has bought Abby a wardrobe full of outfits, including a tiny pair of Nike trainers that she could never have afforded to give her children.
"When my daughter was born, money was tight, we had a budget. This time, I could be extravagant. I went shopping like you would have thought I was having triplets. That was therapeutic," she said.
Her case is far from unique.
Nikki Hunn, the 35-year-old British designer who created Abby, said most of her clients are collectors. But she has made half a dozen "reborn babies" for bereaved mothers as the trend, which began in the United States, moved to Britain and Australia, but is creeping elsewhere.
As the niche market grew, a professional association, the International Reborn Doll Artists, was created in 2005 to promote "cutting edge" techniques in the craft of creating these uncannily life-like creatures. The IRDA has drawn up its own code of ethics, which includes "speaking honourably of every doll that has been sculpted, manufactured or reborn", according to its website. It also holds annual conventions, the next one in California in June.
Not all reborns are custom-made. Today, hundreds can be found for sale on websites like eBay -- including different ethnic models and even a reborn baby orangutan -- with starting bids that can run up to 800 and 900, even 3000 dollars.
Creating each doll is painstaking work, but the results are astonishing.
The plastic limbs come as close as is possible to human flesh, filled with beads to ensure the required weight. The ’skin’ is coloured at the cheeks and eyes are made puffy like those of newborn babies.
Nails are drawn onto tiny fingers, thin strands of mohair are sewn into the scalp and a glistening touch of saliva at the mouth completes the effect.
The dolls are disturbingly real, and that’s the intention. One client even gave Hunn a picture of a baby to copy.
"I had a couple of comments: ’Oh my God, they look so realistic’, ’Get that thing away from me, they creep me out’," Hasty admitted.
But she finds this offensive, saying: "I take it personally, it’s like being told your child is creepy."
She rarely takes Abby outside her home, except to show her to friends who have never seen her before.
"The majority of people just have reborns to hold or display in a crib, cot or pram" at home, Hunn told AFP at a trade show for the dolls in Brentwood, outside London.
However, she says some women do take them outside and even on holiday abroad, "maybe because they are somewhere unknown".
Psychologists are divided on the benefits of such substitutes.
Ingrid Collins, a consultant psychologist at the London Medical Centre, says a fake baby "could create more problems then it solves".
"When you have mourned the death of the child, what do you do? Do you bury it again?" she told AFP.
"If people naturally want to care for something and if they have a lot of love to give and no baby to give it to, there are lots of living souls who do need that love and attention."
But Sandra Wheatley, a psychologist specialising in family issues, says a "reborn baby" could be helpful as a "physical tool to help them mourn the one that they have lost".
"It allows them to adjust slowly at their own pace to a situation that they do not want to be in," she said. "The use of the doll as a transitional tool could be a very healthy thing, as long as it does not go on too long."
Hasty says she is well aware of what Abby is. "I am not confused, I don’t think she is real," she said.
But she stressed: "To me she is not a doll, she is so much more. I don’t have to worry about her dying. I know she is not going to get sick and die. It takes such a pressure off."
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