Marina Bychkova made her first doll before the age of 6.
She doesn't remember what originally inspired her to begin creating dolls, but she does remember a single moment — a few years later — that forever transformed her growing interest in doll construction into a lifelong pursuit.
Born in the Soviet Union, Bychkova saw her first Barbie commercial after the Iron Curtain came down in 1990. "I was completely blown away by it," Bychkova told A Plus. "I thought that Barbie was the most beautiful doll ever made, and I longed to possess it."
Unfortunately, her family was unable to afford the iconic doll. "That's when I decided that one day, I would make the most beautiful doll in the world," she said. "I'm working on it."
Today, she handcrafts porcelain dolls from concept to completion, displaying and selling them on her website, Enchanted Doll.
Each one is the culmination of 15 distinct art disciplines — from metal working to wig making to gemstone setting — into a single miniature masterpiece.
Bychkova creates dolls because she longs for wholeness. Even after decades of first discovering her passion, the only way to achieve that wholeness is through this multifaceted and idiosyncratic art form.
But Bychkova doesn't just make dolls. She also makes a powerful feminist statement.
Unlike their mass-produced peers, Bychkova's dolls' enchanting external appearances often reveal an internal struggle. She uses her art to explore issues many real women face every day, such as body politics, self-agency, reproductive freedom, domestic and sexual abuse, and gender stereotypes.
"Dolls are a reflection of femininity," she told A Plus. "Like women, dolls should be more than just decorative objects — they need to speak."
While all of Bychkova's dolls are more beautiful than any Barbie, she believes that's not enough to justify their existence. "Meaning and purpose are necessary," she said.
Though living in Canada now, Bychkova often finds that meaning in U.S. politics and news, incorporating its controversial subject matter into her work. She's particularly invested in women's reproductive freedoms and worries about the laws that threaten them. Two dolls, "State Property" and "The Vessel," explore her thoughts on the purpose of womanhood in relation — as well as opposed — to motherhood.
While Bychkova creates certain dolls with a specific feminist statement in mind, she always begins with the same body. Each doll features accurate female sex organs, transforming ordinary pieces of porcelain into emblems of female empowerment.
By giving dolls vaginas, she aims to send "a positive subconscious message" that the female form is something to be celebrated, not censored. Most importantly, she wants to normalize the perception of the vagina as just another necessary body part.
"Every single little girl needs to grow up being proud of her own body instead of being ashamed of it," she said. "It's unhealthy and abusive to make women hate themselves for having vaginas, as if they are dirty and vulgar."
Bychkova also aims to empower women by drawing attention to the dangerous forms of sexism that characterize classic fairy tales and literature — before reimagining them on her own terms.
Her dolls highlight the problematic romanticism of female abduction, subjugations, and sexual assault intrinsic in many fairy tales. Even when they've been Disney-fied (and later live-action Disney-fied), she believes such tales can teach little girls these acts aren't just normal, but widely accepted in our culture.
While some dolls, like "Cinderella," are named after their origin story, others such as the ones depicting Snow White and Beauty and the Beast are titled "Necrophilia" and "Stockholm Syndrome," respectively.
Despite the fantastical outward beauty of her Enchanted Dolls, Bychkova believes many are drawn to them because they see reflections of themselves.
"So many more people enjoy having dolls than I ever thought possible," she told A Plus. "My collectors come from all walks of life and from every part of the world. There isn't a single, identifiable demographic." According to Bychkova, her clientele ranges from lawyers to fashion designers, from students to soldiers, and everyone in between.
"It makes me wonder if perhaps we need dolls for some psychological reasons," she added. "Perhaps the job of a doll is to bring us some existential comfort by acting as a projection and a reflection of ourselves, made in our own image."
But a doll doesn't just offer a form of physical reflection and support, it can also provide a childlike sense of security. For many children, a doll wasn't just a doll; she was a companion and a confidante when they had no one else.
That desire — and compulsion — for closeness doesn't just go away when we grow up. If anything, we may need dolls even more now.
Bychkova takes prides in her finished dolls, but she takes joy in the act of creation itself.
"[The] process doesn't stop when a doll is done," she said. "In a way, I don't even see a distinction between a finished doll and the not-yet-started doll because they are both parts of a larger internal process." Case in point: her doll titled "Work in progress."
Most people view Bychkova's dolls as distinct and separate objects, but she sees them as steps on "an endless quest for the perfect doll." Her favorite doll is always the one that doesn't exist yet.