I always wanted to have a pool. But I live in an apartment on the fifth floor. And I don't have any money.
Then I saw a film called Team Hurricane, which played at the Seattle International Film Festival and featured a bunch of young women swimming in a kiddie pool full of brightly colored little balls. These balls go by many names—water jellies, water beads, water gems—but they really only have one name on the internet: Orbeez. They're insanely popular, especially with kids, stoners, and YouTube content creators.
The women in Team Hurricane squished the Orbeez between their toes, submerged themselves entirely in Orbeez and spun their bodies around, and opened their bras to free Orbeez that had gotten stuck in between their breasts.
I needed these balls. They would clearly be fun to relax in after a long day. Or maybe I could use them in a drag performance. If nothing else, it would be fun to touch them while I smoked weed.
I went on Amazon and bought 90,000 knockoff Orbeez from China for only $30. I also bought a kiddie pool—it had soft, rainbow-colored walls. I was ready to live my best life.
I was expecting my box of knockoff Orbeez to be bigger when it arrived. I knew the "seeds" were going to be minuscule, but I didn't think a bag of 30,000 would fit right in my hand. The unhydrated balls are smaller than beads, almost the size of bird mites. According to the instructions, they would inflate when introduced to water.
"They get how big?" my boyfriend asked as I unboxed my order.
"Huge. They're gonna be everywhere. We have to be careful," I said, unzipping a bag. "I can't imagine trying to monitor a kid with these things."
I lit another joint, inflated the kiddie pool in a corner of our bedroom, and poured some seeds in. At first I wanted to use only two of the bags, but my boyfriend said to use all of them, so I dumped all 90,000 in. Then I watered them like a plant—except that I don't have a hose in my apartment, so I used a popcorn bowl and had to go back and forth from my kitchen sink to my bedroom over and over.
The balls are made of superabsorbent polymers, which are found in products like shampoos and menstrual pads. But when these balls get filled with moisture, they are each roughly half an inch wide.
Even though they're almost entirely water, the balls can be held in your hand without losing their shape. It's like magic. They bounce and roll but never burst.
Once I'd watered them, my Orbeez looked kind of squishy. Then they slowly began to expand. We kept checking in, but then we got bored and went to get groceries. When we came back, the entire pool was bloated and full; the balls were overflowing, spilling onto the floor and becoming forever lost under the bed.
That was my first sign that these balls might not be pure fun and magic. Were they going to turn out to be a pain in the ass?
Still, playing with them felt so good. When I dipped my body in them, I was literally going underwater. When I got out, I was totally dry—except for a strange slick residue. The physical oxymoron made my skin tingle. So did the sound of them. I've been told by pussy-havers who visited my bedroom that fondling them sounds like finger-fucking, or stirring macaroni.
Though they are just toys to me, superabsorbent polymers aren't really a plaything at all; they were developed by the US Department of Agriculture to hydrate dry fields. They are sometimes referred to as "slush powder," and their agricultural purpose is to retain and then slowly release moisture over time.
A polymer is a macromolecule containing an extremely long chain made up of identical, repeating molecules. In a superabsorbent polymer, the links in this chain are like sponges waiting to absorb water.
Without water, the chain is tightly wound—thus the bird-mite-sized beads—but when encountering a liquid, the chain expands. Superabsorbent polymers can expand up to 300 times their original weight, becoming up to 99.9 percent liquid.
In the 1960s, a team of scientists working for the USDA developed a superabsorbent polymer they called the Super Slurper, which was used as a tool to help conserve and distribute water. Today, they are mostly used for diapers; they are why a baby's butt balloons after they pee. The Orbeez that kids are playing with today are the same material that absorbed their piss when they were babies.
Even though the toy is essentially diaper pellets, Orbeez have gone viral. It's difficult to quantify the internet mania around the brand, but it's clear these shape-shifting orbs are prime fodder for YouTube. The original Orbeez TV commercial has racked up nearly 60 million views. Some unofficial Orbeez videos are even higher: "Giant Orbeez Water Balloon? What Happens?!" currently has more than 65 million views.
The official Orbeez YouTube channel, called Orbeezone, has more than 237 million views. More than just product videos and commercials, Orbeez has created ridiculous stunts and online TV shows based around their products. The weirdest recurring show, Chef Set Go!, is a spoof on the reality TV spin-off Top Chef Junior, with kids competing to make Orbeez-based dumplings, coffee art, tacos, and sushi. I do not understand this, because it seems like it would encourage kids to eat Orbeez, and Orbeez should not be eaten. (More on that in a second.) But most Chef Set Go! videos have more than a hundred thousand views.
Orbeez's popularity can be credited to a little girl named Maya, according to the Los Angeles Times. Around 2008, Maya was obsessed with the squishy polymer beads in a vase her parents had sitting on a table in their London home. Her parents, Sharon Cohen and Ron Brawer, curiously watched her slap these strange beads when they suddenly had an idea—a billion-dollar idea: These should be a toy.
It helped that Brawer was a veteran of the toy industry. He had worked with Mattel and MGA Entertainment, and helped MGA grow the Bratz doll brand into one of the world's best-selling toy lines.
Brawer and Cohen decided to commit to creating a toy out of superabsorbent polymers, which others had attempted before with minor success. "We started out of our garage," Brawer told the LA Times in 2012. "Our house was an office and workshop. The living room became a showroom. The dining room was the meeting room. Dinner conversation was business conversation."
Their first big product was the Orbeez Magic Maker, an "Orbeez grower" that would dump "Orbeez seeds" into a plastic container of water that would hydrate them. A few hours later, the bloated Orbeez would rise out of the water and roll down a tiny spiral slide.
Because of Brawer's previous connections, the family was able to get the product onto shelves in Target and Toys R Us. But their big moment came in 2010, when they raised more than a million dollars to create a TV commercial for Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. The commercial was set in a wacky animated lab, emphasizing the magical toughness of the new colorful orbs. It "catapulted the company," according to Brawer. He reported sales grew from $5 million in 2009 to nearly $100 million by 2012.
Since the Magic Maker, the Orbeez product line has grown to be completely bonkers. There's an "ultimate soothing spa" that lets kids "bathe" their feet in a plastic pit of hot Orbeez—yes, hot Orbeez—as well as a "massaging body spa," which is a "sophisticated and stylish" purple squishy chair that allows a stressed-out tween to "literally sit in an inflatable lounge filled with Orbeez." The product's promotional image features a preteen with braces relaxing in her Orbeez lounge wearing a robe and flip-flops. She's covered in goopy orbs. Some are smooshed into the carpet.
The company also came out with a line of toy guns called Xploderz that shoot Orbeez. A cross between water guns and foam darts, Xploderz send superabsorbent polymers through the air up to 100 feet, according to Orbeez. The product hasn't been as successful as the standard Orbeez line, but knockoff versions appear to be very popular in China.
Orbeez also sells a $20 ribbed mood lamp (which appears to my eyes to possibly double as a butt plug), as well as collectible Orbeez "magical pets," and, most bizarrely, a "Crush Series" that encourages kids to chop up their inflatable Orbeez and turn them into play food. Like an Easy-Bake Oven, but with Orbeez. Again with the food. The toy's warning label states the orbs should never be consumed, and yet the company sells a whole product line around Orbeez play food. Their Sweet Treats Studio comes with frosting tubes kids shove their Orbeez in to decorate snacks. I just hope the kids use different Orbeez than the hot ones they dip their feet into.
The success of Orbeez has been astronomical. According to a press release issued by the Super Absorbent Polymer Industry and published in June 2018 by MarketWatch, the global market "is valued at $5.9 billion in 2017 and will reach $11 billion by the end of 2025." These little balls are big business.
I was promised my Orbeez would shrink back to their original size after a few days of playing with them. This was a lie. These wet, slimy, radiantly colorful alien balls stayed fully inflated. Soon I started to worry—no doubt because I was stoned—that I was not going to be able to get them out of my apartment when the time came. Would they be too heavy to drag the whole pool down to the dumpster? They weigh as much as water, because they are water.
And then other worries started to occupy me. What would happen if I ate one of these little balls? Or accidentally sniffed one up my nose? I started to panic—as you do when you're high as a kite in a pool of balls on the fifth floor of an apartment building.
While Orbeez are nontoxic, you certainly shouldn't put them inside your body. There have been reports of superabsorbent polymers getting inside of children's ears, where (because of the moisture) they start expanding, resulting in surgery and "profound" hearing loss. Similar issues have occurred inside noses.
The size of Orbeez are closely regulated by the company, but other brands have specialized in superabsorbent polymers that grow to be much larger, like the Dunecraft Water Balz, which were recalled in 2013 after an 8-month-old swallowed one. Doctors were unable to see anything on an X-ray (the ball being almost entirely water), but in surgery they found a brightly colored object almost 1.5 inches in diameter inside the girl's small intestine. Had nothing been done, she possibly could have died.
For months, I played with the balls in my bedroom. Then I used them in a drag performance, which involved packing the balls into an extra-large suitcase and carrying the empty pool to the club. Thankfully, the performance was at Neighbours, which isn't far from my apartment. It was an 18+ show, and the teens freaked the fuck out. I think this was because of the Orbeez, but it might have been because my boyfriend poured the Orbeez on my ass and ate me out while I was lying in the pool. I didn't really lip-sync, but I did lose a Croc in the mayhem. It was a hit.
The teens swarmed me, screaming, "ORBEEEEEZ!"
Orbeez spilled all across the venue. I tried to collect as many as I could, and then I got my check and left. (One of the kids in the crowd later found that missing Croc and pinned it to the dressing room as a trophy.)
When I got home, I put the balls back in the pool, even the dirty ones, because I didn't know what else to do with them. It was nasty, but I kind of liked it.
Later I performed with them at Kremwerk. To make fun of the idea of Orbeez as food, I went "bobbing for Orbeez," dunking my head in a plastic tub of them. But I bobbed too hard. The tub flipped over and the balls cascaded into the audience. I tried to hand them out to people, but no one wanted them. I spent all intermission scooping up Orbeez. And then I packed them up and took them home again.
I used to love touching the balls when I was stoned, but now I was paranoid about the strange supergerms they'd probably grown from all the traveling and fingering.
A few weeks later, my boyfriend threatened to throw them out the window. Eventually, we just dragged the pool down to the dumpster. It was heavy but doable, like lifting a couch. I was not sad watching all the little Orbeez ooze between bags of our neighbors' trash. I was so tired of a quarter of our bedroom being taken up by weird macromolecules.
Little did I know, my boyfriend had secretly filled two pitchers full of them and hid them in our cupboard. What a guy.
I've since decided I want to grow plants in them. After all, they're an agricultural technology. We bought a planter and we're going to fill it with Orbeez and grow orchids. This time I know not to buy 90,000 of them.