I was initially brought to the topic of Valentine’s Day teddy bears from a place of cynicism.
As a mean and elderly witch, I could not imagine how an adult in a romantic relationship would find themselves in want of a stuffed animal, one that communicates, “I have touched — and would like to continue touching — genitals with you.” As Valentine’s Day approached, and at no one’s provocation, I stood up in the office and did a tight five about how offensive I found this very premise, how there was no way that these were actually a desirable gift, how they were nothing more than last-minute drugstore purchases for the terminally thoughtless to give to the long-suffering. Then I assigned myself this story about how everyone hates them and they’re bad.
Not for the first time, it turns out I’m an asshole.
I learned that I was an asshole from the best place to do so: the internet, specifically the subreddits r/AmItheAsshole (boom) and r/relationships, and their companion guide, Twitter. I turned to these Rosetta Stones of human feeling assuming I would find people slagging love-themed bears, wondering if they were too mean about their lousy gifts, and warning off partners or prospective partners from the very idea. But it turns out that many, many people do want to be given teddy bears as a token of affection. These gifts are accessible, intentional, and comforting.
Search “teddy bear gift” on advice-focused subreddits and you’ll find the common refrain: “All I wanted was a teddy bear.” The more common problem, it seems, is an absence of gifting in relationships. Stuffed animals could very well be the solution.
“I’ve told him that I don’t care about what he gets me,” wrote one 17-year-old r/relationships poster last year, distressed by her boyfriend’s ungenerous nature. “It could be something simple like a teddy bear.” Elsewhere on the subreddit, a 23-year-old woman detailed her campaign to receive an oversize buddy from her significant other: “I tell him I want a giant bear and ask if he’s sure he doesn’t want anything. He reassures me and says he will buy one for me. Well Valentine’s day comes and... no teddy. Um. Ok?” It’s not like he’s unable to afford it, she explains: “The bears we saw at Walmart were like $15 and I know he has money because he spent some on weed.”
There were narratives that sort of fit my preconceived notions — a 19-year-old whose boyfriend gave her a post-Valentine’s stuffed animal “obviously [from] the clearance rack,” the young woman who wanted to know if she was an asshole for failing to be grateful for her boyfriend’s gift when “he knows I don’t care for teddy bears and would’ve rather have any other stuffed animal” — but not the sort of strident anti-bear rhetoric I was expecting. For a certain vocal sector of people, stuffed animals are desirable and even romantic. Those people, if you’re keeping track of the ages and stated genders above, appear to be young women in the formative stages of late-teenagerdom and early adulthood.
In early January, @chae2xx politely tweeted, “i want a giant teddy bear this valentine’s day. or a giraffe. pls and thank u.” Via DM, the 20-year-old Alabama State student, who asked to be referred to by her Twitter handle, told me she wants a stuffed animal for “comfort,” something to sleep with when her significant other is away. As an added touch, she hopes he’ll spray it with his cologne.
According to psychologists, comfort objects — similar to the way @chae2xx describes her bear — are a common coping mechanism for children, something they cling to as they begin to move around the world in more meaningful ways. Dr. Donald Winnicott coined the phrase “transitional objects” to refer to the blankets and “loveys” that children attach themselves to and derive solace from.
This need doesn’t end when kids leave the house, however. For Psychology Today, University of Michigan psychology professor Christopher Peterson wrote about conducting an informal study in his own classroom, finding that, “About 80% of the females had brought a stuffed animal to college, whereas fewer than 10% of the males had done so — or at last admitted to it.” Peterson supposes that, “Maybe carrying around a stuffed animal is not a sign of immaturity but something else related to contentment and comfort.” Having something to hold and cuddle — particularly in the absence of sharing a bed with your partner nightly, as many younger couples do not yet live together — is incredibly soothing.
Of course, there’s a difference between the blanket that was in your crib from birth and a pink bear purchased from CVS (or even a high-end one from, say, Gund). These objects may be comforting, but they’re also clear: They’re an explicit symbol that someone loves you, or at least really likes you. One Twitter user posted side-by-side images of herself holding a large bear and said bear alone in what appears to be a pharmacy, writing, “Only someone who really thinks your [sic] special would buy you a giant pink teddy bear for valentines lol (heart growing three sizes emoji).”
Only someone who really thinks your special would buy you a giant pink teddy bear for valentines lol pic.twitter.com/Mn2zsPjue5— Monique (@MoniqueZamoraa) January 9, 2020
Via DM, @mangobbyy, who like teddy bear lover @chae2xx asked to be referred to by her handle, confirms that this obvious sign of love is part of the appeal. The 19-year-old from Delaware, who tweeted in January 2020, “i want a big teddy bear for valentines i want it to fill up my house,” says that when she sees posts from friends about their love-themed bears, she thinks “about how much they are appreciated by the person who gifted them.”
The common refrain is that millennials and Gen Z prefer experiences over gifts, but there’s a serious appeal to having stuff you can keep. Candy is only temporary and jewelry might be out of reach, so for young people looking to show off their love — on their bookshelf or on the ’gram — stuffed animals are visible physical evidence that someone cares about them.
Price is likely also a factor — as the Walmart bear-wanter reminds us, the bear she asked for was only $15. At my local CVS, a large white bear holding a heart full of roses (“Roses 4U Bear”) goes for $19.99; likely still less than the 23-year-old woman’s boyfriend spent on weed. (CVS declined to comment for this story.)
There are expensive bears on the market — GiantTeddy.com, for instance, sells an “enormous” 52-inch red bear in formalwear named Randy Shags for $269.99 — but the people I talked to weren’t interested in an expensive gift from a high-end source. As @chae2xx says, “It’s just a bear.”
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