What Happens When a 26-Year-Old Buys Herself a Rainbow Loom?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Dec. 19 2013 8:27 AM

Rainbow Loon

What happens when a 26-year-old woman tries out the biggest tween fad of the year?

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Katy Waldman, Rainbow Loomer

Photo by Ryan Vogt/Slate

If you are a parent of tweens and have not yet heard of Rainbow Loom, congratulations on being a unicorn who can read. Rainbow Loom—a plastic pegboard that comes with a hook, clips, and 600 brightly colored rubber bands—is the newest omnipresent Kid Fad. Use the hook to twist the tiny bands into Daedal patterns. Consult YouTube videos for instructions on the trickier ones: zippy chains, hexafish, triple singles, double braids, ladders, starbursts, sweethearts. (They even have a Double X!) The product is sort of like lanyards, sort of like Silly Bandz, sort of like a magical drug that turns children aged 8 to 14 into crazed arachnids. It is the reason kids’ arms are stacked with bracelets, which they give away and sell and trade the way we used to with pogs, Pokémon cards, Garbage Pail Kids, and Beanie Babies.

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

Parents love Rainbow Loom because they think it promotes creativity, quiet focus, fine motor skills, and digital literacy. Teachers hate it because they think students are “addicted” and “distracted” (the bracelets have so far been banned in two New York schools). Toy retailers covet it because more than 3 million $17-a-piece units have sold since the kits became available this summer, and that number was reported before the holiday shopping rush. And business reporters are inspired by the product’s Horatio Alger–like journey—by the crash-test engineer in his Michigan living room who set out to devise a compelling toy for his two daughters and ended up with a multimillion dollar company.

But you? How should you feel about Rainbow Loom?

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I spent a week in a Rainbow Loom wormhole to find out.

* * *

Rainbow Loom is for ages “8 and up,” so while, as a 26-year-old female, I am not the target audience for the toy, I am not not the target audience either. In fact, much has already been made of Rainbow Loom’s broad appeal. It is the rare jewelry crafting kit that entrances boys as well as girls—one Chicago retailer estimated that around 40 percent of the looms he sells go to the former. In Time, Annie Murphy Paul writes that her son and his friends have embraced looming, upending the stereotype that boys prefer to throw and smash, while girls like to finesse and prettify. “Toy choice is the single most sex-typed behavior that children display,” Murphy Paul notes, so if Rainbow Loom has lured boys into the “pink aisle,” that’s a big deal.

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The single-link (top) and fishtail Rainbow Loom bracelets

Photo by Katy Waldman/Slate

Of course, eye-popping colors and swirly designs don’t have to connote girlhood. One mom speculated to the Christian Science Monitor that her son liked Rainbow Loom's “gender-neutral packaging” and the fact that it uses “rubber bands rather than fluffy yarn or delicate materials.” But even if the toy amounts to a manlier take on Penelope’s art, it is still interesting to see, in a marketplace chock-full of “boy toys” draped in feminine signifiers for girls’ benefit, a “girl toy” presented as gender neutral. So the first thing I did when I received my kit in the mail was wave it in the face of my male co-worker.

 “Do you hear … the call … of the Rainbow Loom?”

“Intriguing!” he replied. “But I used to knit all the time in college, so I’m already an outlier.”

That makes two of us. If women are supposed to love weaving complicated designs (preferably by candlelight, out of our own shining hair), I am more of a book person. This is not a humblebrag; I just prefer pastimes you can’t screw up.

But 8-year-olds do Rainbow Loom! How hard can it be? I started with the simplest schema in the Rainbow Loom cosmos, the “single pattern link,” because that was the one featured in the instruction manual that came with the package. It took me maybe 10 minutes after laying down my colors and picking up the hook to find even a halting rhythm. The bands kept snapping off the pegs and hitting me in the eye. With only the haziest understanding of the rules governing the art form, I struggled to retrace my steps after making an error (which happened a lot).

According to Cynthia Edwards, a psychologist based in Raleigh, N.C., kids in the Rainbow Loom age group are beginning to develop “executive function,” or the ability to plan and carry out complicated tasks. To them, following the mazy windings of a triple diamond stitch can feel like a fascinating new challenge. Rainbow Loom helped me realize that, at 26, I am not at all enticed by the prospect of planning and carrying out complicated tasks. Simple tasks for this girl, please! Yet over time, the crafting got easier. Though acolytes praise Rainbow Loom for sparking kids’ imaginations, becoming one with your loom is actually a pretty mindless process. The hypnotic clicking of the hook against the pegs becomes a lullaby. The world narrows. At first, I frequently put down my pegboard in order to make notes, but as my bracelet took shape, the stenography tapered off. (Need to pee, the last entry reads, like some doomed scribble out of Bram Stoker, but cannot get up.)

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