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How young adults have softened the perception of plush toy collections

Shelves containing different stuffed animal brands including Palm Pals and Squishmallows are pictured. Stuffed animals have become more popular recently among college students because of their collectability and their ability to provide comfort during periods of stress. (Myka Fromm/Assistant Photo editor)

By Olivia Simons

Oct. 19, 2023 10:59 p.m.

In the 2012 film “Pitch Perfect,” the protagonist Beca walks onto her college campus, Barden University, during move-in to start her freshman year.

Beca notices a student transporting several bins of stuffed animals, which fall over on the student’s way to their dorm. People in the vicinity chuckle at the situation, and Beca smirks as she walks past the fallen plush friends.

While students still may not pack an enormous volume of stuffed animals for school, the stigma of bringing plushies has abated in the 11 years since Pitch Perfect’s debut, according to Bruins. Stuffed animal brands such as Squishmallows, Squishable and Jellycat all maintain young adult consumer bases, profiting off the comforting and collectible nature of their products.

Squishable social media and marketing associate Alexa Parlapiano said the popularity of stuffed animals has risen in recent years with decreased stigma and a rising collection culture.

“A few years ago, it would have been like, ‘Oh, you’re bringing a teddy bear to college. Are you a little baby?’” Parlapiano said. “But now it’s like, ‘Oh, you have the limited edition XYZ plush. That’s so cool. Do you have any others?’ It’s become this sort of pop culture thing in and of itself, and it brings so many communities together.”

Assistant psychology professor Jaimie Arona Krems said in response to a list of emailed questions that decreased stigma can help people be more comfortable expressing themselves around others.

“Carrying around a plushie might be seen to negatively affect someone’s reputation, but I think it’s crucial to make sure that we’re talking about reputation in the eyes of whom,” Krems said. “Especially as this behavior becomes more normative, or at least less stigmatized, what we’re going to see is that people are more free to behave how they want to behave.”

Companies point to the pandemic as the beginning of the shift in plush toy culture.

According to The Washington Post, the pandemic helped give Squishmallows, egg-shaped plush toys manufactured by Jazwares, the stardom they enjoy today. Squishmallow, a brand launched in 2017, started expanding with new ownership in 2019 and took off by providing easily accessible comfort items for those experiencing heightened stress from lockdown.

Squishable also saw a spike in sales and visibility during the height of lockdown, but for an unintentionally appropriate product that Parlapiano said soared to popularity upon its release.

Toward the beginning of the pandemic, Squishable debuted the Squishable Plague Doctor, which mimics medieval plague doctors who treated European plague victims. The Plague Doctor was originally intended to be a Halloween product but hit the market during what became an opportune time to help people cope with stress and loneliness caused by lockdown, Parlapiano said.

“During that time, I think we all just collectively felt so alone, scared,” Parlapiano said. “People looked toward collectibles, physical things to have to fill that void of not being able to interact with people.”

According to Time, other toy brands such as LEGO experienced sales spikes during the pandemic because of their products’ appeal to older generations. Similar to LEGO, Jellycat creates products for adults, such as plush toys in the shape of friendly vegetables that can serve as comfort items during stressful times, according to the same source.

(Myka Fromm/Assistant Photo editor)
Target Bullseye plush dogs sit on a display in the Westwood Target. (Myka Fromm/Assistant Photo editor)

Beyond sales spikes from the pandemic, Bruins said plush toys have become more popular because of changing perceptions surrounding owning stuffed animal collections.

First-year psychology student Liad Machmali said Squishmallows in particular have become increasingly socially acceptable and have made plush toys commonplace room decorations. According to The Washington Post, Squishmallows have seen a growing fan base among college students, with consumers 18 and up driving sales.

Krems said Generation Z emphasizes tolerance of different identities and interests, which could open the door for more acceptance of practices such as having stuffed animals at college.

“There is a greater understanding that life is rough, and people need to do what they need to do to get through it,” Krems said. “So I absolutely see a possibility that there is decreased stigmatization for … a lot of these self-care behaviors among Gen Z.”

Across other American universities, Olivia Tong, a writer for the Daily Emerald at the University of Oregon, argued for the benefits of owning a stuffed animal in college. According to The California Aggie, UC Davis students purchase and value stuffed animals for feelings of nostalgia from their childhood.

First-year history student Jayna Howard said she has several bags of stuffed animals at home and brought two she has had since childhood to school with her. They said the plush toys are comfort items and that stuffed animals in general can be beneficial for new students looking to adjust to life at a populous school like UCLA.

“It just makes me feel safe and secure,” Howard said. “It’s a huge school and there’s a lot of change, and so it’s nice to have something that’s familiar.”

Parlapiano added that stuffed animals can also provide students with an opportunity for self-expression.

“The way we dress, the way we do our hair are very outward things that we do to please other people,” Parlapiano said. “And while having a certain collection of stuffed animals is still an outward thing, if you’re showing them off, it is also deeply personal because it’s something you’re curating. It’s something you’re choosing.”

(Myka Fromm/Assistant Photo editor)
Plush toys from several brands including Squishable sit stacked on shelves. (Myka Fromm/Assistant Photo editor)

While stuffed animals can be just for personal use, Machmali said they have also gained popularity with college students through sharing content on social media.

On TikTok, a platform most commonly used by Generation Z in the U.S., there are over 8.7 billion views combined for #squishmallow and #squishmallows.

Parlapiano said Squishable also benefits from social media. In their role, Parlapiano creates social media content often geared toward Gen Z using memes, references and language that resonates with young adult audiences.

Machmali said she has seen many videos featuring stuffed animals on TikTok, particularly videos of influencers talking about Squishmallow ownership.

Members of the Squishmallow community connect with each other mostly online, according to The Washington Post, and members use this community to organize meetups and opportunities to share and trade Squishmallows. Parlapiano said she hopes Squishable will begin to partake in this practice going forward to help give college students a break from campus life.

With plush toys’ heightened popularity, Howard said they hope students can take pride in their plush friends and respect others’ decisions to have them as well.

“People should be proud of their stuffed animals, man,” Howard said.

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Olivia Simons | Quad editor
Simons is the 2023-2024 Quad editor. She was previously the 2022-2023 managing editor, an assistant Sports editor on the baseball, women's tennis, men's tennis, swim and dive and rowing beats and a reporter on the baseball and women's tennis beats. She is also a fourth-year student from Oakland, California.
Simons is the 2023-2024 Quad editor. She was previously the 2022-2023 managing editor, an assistant Sports editor on the baseball, women's tennis, men's tennis, swim and dive and rowing beats and a reporter on the baseball and women's tennis beats. She is also a fourth-year student from Oakland, California.
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