Do you remember the first time you heard someone say "I'm baby"? I don't. But it must have been sometime in 2019, after a viral ABC News story from 2017 made it to Twitter. According to KnowYourMeme, it all started with a mom's autocorrected response to her daughter's text about a home invasion: "I'm baby. Call 911." It had been making the rounds on Tumblr and Instagram for a couple of years, but in February of 2019, a Twitter user beautifully combined the typo with the Kirby Explains meme format, and thus, "I'm baby" became a fixture in our cultural lexicon. Writer Aiden Arata summed up the sentiment in her take on the meme: "being baby is a radical response to a culture in which older generations have infantilized us without nurturing us, a rejection of capitalist productivity standards, a joyful reclamation of tenderness, a revolution."
Since then, "I'm baby" has become a blanket reply for pretty much every situation an adult could reasonably expect to encounter in day-to-day life: Time to pay the bills? I'm baby—what are bills? (Or, as Fred Armisen's Broad City character says, "I'm a baby—I have no money!") Deciding what to eat for dinner tonight? I'm baby—feed me! Have to make a dentist appointment? Mom, will you do it for me? I'm baby. Coronavirus? I'm baby. Existence? In this human vessel? I'm baby.
"As absurd as it is, ‘I'm baby' requires little explanation," says fashion and accessories expert Hallie Spradlin, from trend forecasting agency Fashion Snoops. "It sums up so much of the feeling of Gen Z, and even some younger millennials, that it has become an identifying moniker for a generation."
Google searches peaked in May 2019, but I don't hear anyone saying "I'm baby" any less. In fact, the state of eternal babyhood it implies seems to have spun out into all-encompassing cultural obsession, from "Sanrio-core" meme pages and "kidcore" aesthetic accounts, to brands selling plushies for grown-ups. The Sloomoo Institute, literally a slime playground for kids and adults, recently opened its first pop-up space in New York, and last Summer, the Museum of Ice Cream secured a permanent location in SoHo, replete with a sprinkle pool. The Internet can't get enough of the galaxy's most adorable 50-year-old tot, Baby Yoda, not to mention his lesser cohorts, like Baby Nut, Baby Sonic, Baby Groot, and Baby Thanos.
But nowhere has our obsession with early childhood been more apparent than in the realm of fashion. In mid-February, the brand Dolls Kill announced the launch of a collaboration with Care Bears, which includes plush, oversized hoodies with ears; fuzzy lilac bras with Share Bear's face emblazoned on each cup, and an "in denial" tank top showing Cheer Bear "Running From My Problems Like…" Gucci's AW20 menswear collection is all nostalgic back-to-school looks and babydoll dresses for dudes. Scrunchies and barrettes are today's accessory must-have, Susan Alexandra's beaded bags are all the rage, and up-and-coming designers like Sandy Liang and Molly Goddard revel in puffy sleeves, tulle and taffeta princess dresses, and pink plastic hair clips.
In many ways, mass-market and high fashion alike seem to be taking cues from the E-girl subculture, an online community based on platforms like TikTok, Discord, and Instagram that's become synonymous with graphic and rosy makeup, chokers, star-and-heart-shaped facial stamps, mesh-tops, and colored hair in pigtails, along with the satirization of gender expectations (a la "Tumblr feminism"). In a Vox explainer, TikTokker and self-proclaimed E-girl Jessica Fisher described her style as possessing a distinct "‘I'm baby' quality"—and this aesthetic obsession with childhood, along with cues from gamer culture and anime, seems to be radiating outward into the wider culture. "E-girl," along with "Harajuku"—a shorthand for the eccentric threads long worn by youths in Toyko's Harajuku shopping district, which shares the former's emphasis on Lolita style, freedom of expression, and kawaii culture—were two of the most searched fashion trends from 2019.
E-girls are like our new, social media style vanguards. So I decided to ask one about the "I'm baby" look. Honey, aka @cwunchie, is an Instagram influencer whose feed is full of pastel, lace, bows, plushies, and big-eyed selfies decorated with Sanrio stickers. Over email, she told me that she says "I'm baby" multiple times a day. "I LOVE when others refer to me like this as well," she writes. "I like to think that it encourages people to treat me with extra gentleness and kindness, with the expectation that I'll be just as sweet and loving in return."
Honey tells me her personal interest in childlike aesthetics began around 2014, when she discovered the "cutesy" community on Tumblr, a collection of pages focused around twee positivity phrases, sweet cartoons, pastel outfits, and kawaii treats and toys. She now shops mainly at Claire's, Dolls Kill's Lolita-esque line Sugar Thrillz, and Korean shops, and says she loves clothes that remind her of "what a Bratz or Barbie doll would wear—anything pink, sparkly or soft." Overall, she seems quite pleased the innocent aesthetic has become a mainstream concept. "Being an adult is very stressful most of the time, and everyone needs a break from their responsibilities! Sometimes you simply need to embrace things that make you feel cute and give you that childlike feeling of safety and joy."
When I told my therapist about the baby-centric trend, she was confused. "Isn't being an adult supposed to be a good thing?" She went on to list all the wonderful things about being a grown-up, including conflict resolution, solid relationships, sex, independence, confidence, and self-knowledge. She has a point, but I can't help thinking that for people of a certain age—and especially now, in the midst of a pandemic—retreating to more innocent times can be a necessary coping mechanism. In a world where we are bombarded by headlines about the failings of our healthcare system, the inevitability of a recession, climate disasters, and the stripping back of reproductive rights, many of us find ourselves just wanting to feel safe, to be baby. Even Pete Buttigeg, the 38-year-old former presidential candidate, remarked in a February debate that watching Trump's impeachment trials was so exhausting it made him want to "watch cartoons," a comment Amy Klobuchar called him "childish" for making.
The perception that young people are failing to grow up fast enough—stuck in a liminal phase between childhood and adulthood—is nothing new. In fact, it's been going on since at least as far back as the 1960s, when former Vogue editor-in-chief Diana Vreeland coined the term "youthquake" to describe the "childlike" mod dresses and mini-skirts of the Beatlemania era. In time, this "youthquake" became a self-fulfilling prophecy: Fashion and beauty media latched onto the idea that what is young, or what the young like, is inevitably going to sell; brands started marketing their inventory as a way of preserving one's youth and cool. The youthquake never ended.
And yet, the accusations of "delayed adulthood" have continued—especially when it comes to the Millennial generation and Gen Z. A decade ago, 60 Minutes' Morley Safer said that Millennial resistance to "growing up" (in terms defined by the silent generation and baby boomers, who started the damn youthquake in the first place) was the fault of Mister Rogers, and us being raised by "doting parents who told [us we] were special." That same year, there was a big T Magazine story focused on the psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, who has essentially devoted his life to studying what he sees as a new stage of development: "emerging adulthood," or ages 18-25, a liminal phase between adolescence and adulthood where young people focus on self-exploration. He even started a non-profit research institute to study the phenomenon.
When the olds and academics were initially trying to figure out Millennials, there were countless articles and books about the rise of the "kidult," the "man-child," the "adultescent," or the "twixter," a particularly icky term. They also started throwing around phrases like "life stage dissolution," "postmodern infantilization," and "arrested adulthood" to make sense of this new "in-between" life stage. Millennials! They move out of their parents' homes later, they take longer to find a steady job (if at all), they stay in school longer (and thereby have more debt), and they are much slower to marry, if ever. And if these traditional markers of maturity and success are feeling stale to Millennials, then surely they're stale to the Zoomers, who are our most socially aware and progressive generation yet. While they may not be entering the same bleak economic landscape Millennials did (although, that depends on what happens with COVID-19), they grew up during the foreclosure crisis and are definitely not blind to the unstable climate future we are all facing. They also experience high levels of unemployment, all of which is linked to Gen Z's reported higher risk for stress, depression, and anxiety, which, according to some studies, can increase the risk of joblessness still further.
Even if Gen Z have a markedly different attitude towards traditional life milestones than their parents and grandparents, that doesn't mean they don't feel pressure to achieve them. "Our generation is still coming to terms with the fact that we don't have to grow up as fast as previous ones (ex: married with kids, homeowner, full career by 23, etc), but the societal pressure still exists, so many people beat themselves up for not being as ‘successful' as they feel they should be at their age," says Honey. In this light, the "I'm baby" phenomenon could be seen as a form of self-soothing, an expression of solidarity among young people who feel they're not ready, or simply not able, to enter traditional "adulthood." As Honey sees it, the term speaks to "the more open and accepting culture Millennials and Gen Z have."
On the whole, Gen Z is also more open about mental health. And if you're scrolling through "cutesy" and babycore accounts on Instagram, you might just stumble upon one of a number of age regression accounts, where users post photos of stuffed animals, pacifiers, blankies, baby bottles, and coloring books for therapeutic purposes. Taking its name from a controversial form of therapy that involves recalling and processing childhood memories under hypnosis, the age regression community centers individuals who use engage with activities and objects associated with early youth to process anxiety, depression, and stress—and it's thriving in online spaces like Instagram, Tumblr, YouTube, Reddit, and Wattpad. There, people interested in age regression (or AGRE) can explore others' personal age regression accounts, DIY pacifier shops, and written and video guides to how to enter "little space," a term insiders use to describe a state of calm characterized by lack of responsibility.
"A lot of the time cutesy culture is lumped in with AGRE or Littles, and while the subjects overlap in some ways, there are very clear differences with all of them that keep them separate," Honey explains. Though she doesn't identify as AGRE or a "little," she says "being associated in this kind of aesthetic community opens you up to these topics whether you go searching for it or not." Being introduced to the idea of age regression, along with some of the different fetishes associated with it (see: adult baby and DDLG), is just a click away on the Instagram suggestion feature. Maybe the desire to be baby isn't so strange after all—even if it seems destined to be misunderstood.
In 2015, media artist Matt Starr started a whole hullabaloo when he claimed Babycore was the next Normcore—or something like that—arguing that oversized Osh Kosh B'Gosh and bright, youthful solids represented "the next step in our generation's obsession with nostalgia." Everyone seemed to forget about this, though, when Lisa Frank and Polly Pocket made resurgences in 2017, prompting Racked's Jennifer Wright to plead: "Grown Women, Please Don't Dress Like Toddlers." "There are more important things to be resisting than adulthood," she wrote. "Toddlers embracing Polly Pockets don't get to stop health care bills." A writer for a website called Superbalist described it, disparagingly, as the "Babyluxe" trend: "Liking vibrant colours and pom-poms is all fine and dandy but behaving like a child is not cute. The world could do with more adults at a time where everything is seemingly unraveling." In a strange example of history coming full circle, Oxford Dictionary named "youthquake" Word of the Year.
Either babycore is back now, or the trend never went away. And hand-wringing folks aside, a lot of young people are pretty down to be baby, or at least dabble. When we wear glittery butterfly clips, indulge in mindless pixel games, or order Tamagotchis online, these throwbacks to the 90s can help us return to a moment when our worst collective fears had to do with calendar date technology. (Or, in the case of Zoomers, when we were, literally, baby). It's an impulse that can even come through in our linguistic tics: A 2015 paper from scholars at a Russian University suggests the use of diminutives (words such as "like" or "wanna") among young people may be a symptom of the "excessive pressure of aggressive environments (social as well as informational)."
In times of societal turmoil, we tend to talk and act like children. And when many of us don't even know when we'll be able move freely outside again, it can be hard to imagine a sunny, non-apocalyptic future at all, let alone a traditional adulthood. It's no wonder we all wanna curl up under a weighted blankie in a Care Bears hoodie right now, play Animal Crossing, and pretend we're not kidults or emerging adults but little tiny babies, swaddled by ASMR, our fingers deep in slime and our bellies full of cake. Even if bills still need to be paid, and we can't totally avoid conflicts with other people or unplug from the Internet, sometimes it's just nice to be baby.