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The BabiesReview - The Babies
by Polly Borland
powerHouse Books, 2001
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Jan 26th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 4)

There are some books that I want to review, and I pester and plead with publishers to send review copies. Then there are other books that I get sent, which stay on my shelves for months because I do not have the time or inclination to read them and I cannot find anyone else to review them either. This book falls in the latter category. Indeed, I might not have reviewed this book at all if it were not for the fact that Susan Sontag wrote an introductory essay and it is published by powerHouse books, an interesting publisher that has many great books in its catalog.

I'm not usually put off by sexually-themed books - indeed, I plan to review a wide range of photography books in the next few months that many readers will consider beyond the pail. But The Babies is a collection of photographs of adult men who derive sexual pleasure from dressing and acting as babies. I'm not sure if they get pleasure from viewing photographs of other men dressed as babies -- I imagine some do. But this is not a work of pornography; rather it is more journalism or documenting. But this is neither a scientific recording of perversion, nor an exposé of the shocking truth of what goes on in the suburbs. Rather, it is an inquisitive and magnanimous look at these men, very open in its attitude towards them.

Polly Borland explains at the end of the book that after doing a feature story for a British newspaper on Adult Babies, she decided to "embark on a photographic journey" to explore the topic more. She soon realized that it is an international phenomenon. Some men chose to dress as boy babies, some as girl babies; some are into bondage and punishment; some prefer to be newborn babies, while others prefer one, two or three years old. Not all of them are into wetting themselves or defecating. Most of the men say they felt unloved as children, and because of the isolation they felt in their Adult Babyhood activities, they continued to feel neglected. But with the Internet, Adult Babies around the world are able to communicate with each other. (Of course, the same is true for many other people with unusual ways of expressing themselves sexually.)

It is of course interesting to speculate what leads adult men to behave in this way - certainly just feeling neglected as a child is not a sufficient explanation. But these pictures do not aim to explain the behavior, simply to show it. Borland managed to win the trust of her subjects so that they felt comfortable enough to let her photograph them in their Babyhood. I wonder how it felt for her taking these pictures; if my discomfort in viewing them is any indication, it must have been a difficult process.

There is something profoundly strange in seeing grown men dress up in romper suits, sit in strollers, sucking on pacifiers, wearing large diapers, and silky night-dresses with pink bows. Without wishing to be needlessly judgmental, I have to say I find it far more grotesque than pictures of bondage gear and shiny leather. How bizarre that a rather simple regression to the age of talcum powder and diaper rashes is more disturbing than the excitement of domination and pain, but my guess is that my reaction will be shared by most of those who open these pages. I wonder whether there is a gender difference here - maybe women will experience less discomfort in seeing these images, and maybe there is something about them that threatens deeply held notions of masculinity. But then again, I suspect that I'd have similar reactions on seeing middle-aged women dressed up as babies in adult diapers, pacifiers, and pink or blue bonnets.

I imagine that most people experience some pleasures of regression; I know I do occasionally. Rediscovering old toys, old comics, food that one enjoyed as a child can be fun; sometimes playing with children, one can experience the fun and playfulness one had as a child, pulling faces, making silly sounds, chasing and even wrestling can be enjoyable too. (I'll personally admit to recently enjoying reading and reviewing many children's books.) In a different form of regression, it's a common observation that adult couples newly in love can sometimes have that kind of playfulness, even if it can be obnoxious if they engage in it in public.

Doubtless one of the reasons that Adult Babies may be disturbing is the fact that they get some sexual pleasure from their activities, and maybe some would worry about having these men playing with their babies, so it is worth stressing that nothing in this book even hints that there is any connection between infantilism and pedophilia. They seem to be entirely distinct phenomena. Although we genitalia in some of these images, and in a couple of them the men are sexually aroused, the focus here is not on sexuality, but rather on dressing up and playing. In fact, one of the most disturbing pictures for me is entirely non-sexual; "Snuggles in Mummy Hazel's garden" is set in a back yard of someone's house in Britain; a large man, dressed up in pink and white, wearing a bonnet, mittens, a large nightdress, white socks and pink sandals is on a rocking horse, presumably specially constructed to be large enough for an adult. Maybe what is especially striking here is that he is willing to be seen not just by the photographer, but also by people in adjoining houses who have an open view of him. I would die of embarrassment if it were me.

In these pictures by Borland, we know very little about the men apart from the names they take as babies and what country they live in; pictures were taken in Britain, Australia, and California. So there's little context to these images, and presumably this was a deliberate choice. It would have been possible to accompany the pictures with interviews with Adult Babies, explanations by them of their preferences, or even discussions by psychiatrists of this sort activity. Instead, the short texts that precede and follow the pictures are short pieces by Susan Sontag, editor Mark Holborn, and Borland herself. Sontag wonders whether the babies are "really unattractive" and points out that there's a great difference between these subjects and those in Roger Ballen's Platteland, which shows whites in rural South Africa; the implication here is that "adult babies" are not evil, even if they are rather sad or pathetic.

It's hard to know how to assess these pictures; they certainly provoke a variety of emotional reactions, including curiosity, discomfort, and amusement. Some may be disgusted, others may be aroused. Ultimately, I'm not convinced that these images provide much insight into the world of infantalism, but they do at least remind us, if we needed reminding, of the wide range of different sorts of sexuality.

Links: (warning - these are to adult sites and can lead a profusion of unwanted pop-up ads)

© 2002 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster communication between philosophers, mental health professionals, and the general public.


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