Anything goes in Times Square. Drummers flay empty buckets and paint cans, smokers pass marijuana joints to random passersby, a shrieking frenzy of religious zealots lie on the pavement dressed in literal sackcloth and ashes . . . and in the midst of this, an assortment of stuffed animal toys convulse in a chorus of happy, high-pitched squeals as the adults holding them (and voicing the afore-mentioned squeals) meet each other for the first time.
Until this moment, not a single person in this group, ranging in age from early 30s to late 50s and coming in from four different states, knew each other’s faces or names. This anonymous meetup was arranged by the stuffed animals themselves, usually called “plushies,” clasped fondly in each person’s arms. Among them are a tiger inexplicably named Hippo, Harby the harbor seal, and a penguin called Timmy McFatty. They are part of a massive worldwide online community called Plushies of Instagram (currently a 1.4 million post hashtag) who have been supporting, encouraging, and socializing with each other during the darkest times of the pandemic and beyond. This isn’t a fetish, a children’s hobby, a group of puppeteer performers, or even people simply stuck at home with nothing better to do. This is a real and wholesome community, where people can share their lives and feelings — dreaded dental appointments, summer vacations, creative handcrafts, loss of loved ones — through the child-like lens of a beloved toy animal.
That’s not to say it isn’t hellishly awkward to be talking in a Comic Sans style voice while hugging a meter-long plush shark on a New York subway for the sake of filming a new IGTV video. The shark, whose name is Phineas, chatters excitedly in his incomprehensible shark voice about the lights and people flashing past the window. His little brother Seamus, bundled in a hand-knitted sweater made by a fellow plushie, is super excited to try New York pizza for the first time ever and is gnawing on his tail, ever thinking with his stomach rather than his fluffy brain. In these moments, they are as real as any other commuter sitting here, but this alternative reality feels threatening to some. My mother calls me just minutes before I board the plane to New York.
“Where are you staying?” she demands.
“At a friend’s house,” I reply, vaguely.
“What’s their name?”
Uh-oh . . . now I’m caught. I have no idea of the name or face of the people picking me up from the airport and taking me to their Brooklyn apartment.
“Well,” I say. “Their plushie is named Leo Cunningbear.”
“You don’t know who you are staying with? That doesn’t sound like a good idea, honey. I can’t believe you are taking a risk like this.”
How can I explain my trust in the community? The very vulnerability it takes for adults to carry stuffed animals in public — whether for emotional support, social media content, or an anonymous meetup — allows me to feel in good company and trust the people behind the plushies. So, for the first time in two years, I am taking a day off of work in order to spend a long weekend enjoying some dearly-missed travel with a posse of perfect strangers.
The plushies themselves I already know quite well. My own sharks are fellow campers with them in Stuffie Scouts — a club for plushies to earn virtual merit badges for a wide variety of activities, including baking, volunteering, doing yoga, telling jokes, taking care of the environment, raising awareness about rare diseases, and participating in Take Your Plushie to Work Day. They also participate weekly in virtual “plushie only” tea parties, dance parties, and movie nights. Phineas and Seamus themselves hosted the Plushie Olympics event in 2020 when the Tokyo Olympics were postponed, and again in 2021. I remember how the cancellation of the Olympics felt like a real blow to many of us stuck at home. It made the pandemic that much more real and threatening. With summer vacation plans recently canceled, people were struggling to face the reality that this was now a long-haul situation. I felt I needed to give our online community something creative and wholesome to do during this trying season, something that involved teamwork and encouragement. So I enlisted the help of several plushie judges to co-host with my sharks and created the hashtag #PlushieOlympics2020. Here participants could post videos and photos of their stuffed animals competing in athletic events during the two weeks the Olympics were supposed to have been held. Everyone received virtual medals based on their post’s number of “likes” and also participated in the opening and closing ceremonies. The community helped each other earn more likes through shares and stories, and suddenly, none of us were alone anymore. The Olympics could go on. While the “hoomans” (as we are affectionately called) were staying safe, the plushies kept the Olympic spirit alive. It was a beautiful couple of weeks.
Safely arrived in Manhattan, Phineas and Seamus want to stop en route to Times Square to look for postcards. They keep up a correspondence with about 50 other plushie accounts, usually during holidays or vacations. Their contact list is far larger than mine, with addresses for Japan, Germany, Ireland, Hong Kong, France, Canada, Brazil, Taiwan, Australia, Russia, Finland, Thailand, Italy, and Belarus. I hold onto my sharks tightly as we browse. Accidentally dropping them to the pavement will earn them a direct trip to the “wishy-washy machine” for decontamination. All plushies, even those who enjoy the water like sharks, hate getting laundered in this dark, loud, hooman contraption. At last, with a dramatic dissonance of grumpy, dismissive noises, Phineas and Seamus let me know that there are not enough NYC postcards here with sharks on them and that it’s time to move on.
Despite their grumbling, my sharks make wonderful emotional support plushies. I still remember my first encounter with Phineas in IKEA. I hadn’t picked out a stuffed animal in a store since I was 13 years old, yet I immediately wrestled him out of the overflowing toy bin and hugged him to my chest on sight. There was something so sweet about his face, so guileless about his expression, that I couldn’t help but carry him around the store with me. By the time we arrived at the checkout line to purchase some household items, I knew he was coming home with me, too. I would soon come to learn that this same stuffed animal, called Blåhaj in Swedish, had captured the hearts of thousands of people around the globe and on the internet. I would become friends with hundreds of other IKEA sharks on Instagram, and eventually, IKEA Japan would create a Blåhaj mascot and Marvel would include brief product placement in the series Hawkeye.
Sharks are not the only emotional support plushies in the community, though. Teddy bears, penguins, octopi, emojis, hand-crocheted aliens, and Pikachus all represent, among many others. The majority of our fluffy friends maintain a childlike wonder of the outside world, a loving trust towards their adopted human parents, and a soft heart open to new friends and new ideas. They care for their hoomans when they go to the hospital, are faced with career challenges, or are in the process of addiction recovery. They mourn together when another loved one has passed due to the pandemic, offering hugs, prayers, and even financial help. Their personalities are nourishing, their acts of kindness heart-warming, and their mischievous hijinks a cause of irresistible laughter, even in the darkest times. After a two-year stretch of pandemic-induced isolation and uncertainty, these plushies, with which we communicate almost daily, feel like family.
And the hoomans behind them? Writers. Teachers. Photographers. Artists. Librarians. Software engineers. Lab technicians. Entrepreneurs. Husbands. Wives. Theater aficionados. Sports fans. Otaku. World travelers. Survivors of chronic disease. LGBT+ and racial equality activists. Or you could simply say, surprisingly “normal” people. It’s always interesting to see what sort of amazing individual has remained unseen in the background behind a pair of cute beaded eyes or a fluffy, well-loved face. But unseen is the way most of us like it. In a trending online environment of “brag boards” and buying followers, subscribers, and “friends,” the plushie community prefers to share shout-outs, cheer each other on, and keep the “hoomie” accomplishments mostly under wraps. In fact, many of them rag on their humans quite a bit for not giving them proper nutrition (cake and pizza), or enough time to accomplish important tasks (napping).
But there can be no complaining about “silly hoomans” this time, as we all take our fluffy friends on a short walk to Bryant Park to enjoy hot cocoa, arepas, and bao from the Winter Village food stalls. With 11 people, 13 plushies, and two dogs gathered around a single picnic table, our large group stands out even in mid-town Manhattan. Phineas and Seamus cuddle with their plushie buddies on a bench for warmth, fight for the last bite of waffle, and grin their toothy grins for the camera, fin in paw in flipper with their diverse assortment of friends. Oh, and the New York pizza is everything they have ever hoped and dreamed of. Meanwhile, the hoomans organize a cookie mailing list, solicit interviews for a plushie article, and start planning a second meetup for the spring. In fact, upon posting the photos of the meetup shortly after, we receive dozens of responses from accounts around the world wishing to attend or host plushie meetups in their own area.
And in case you were wondering, yes, I officially feel like a freak, divulging the secret lives of the Plushies of Instagram and my love for this odd hobby of mine. Nevertheless, this community, which I originally stumbled upon by accident and joined on a whim, has been a surprisingly valuable experience, stretching my creativity, allowing me to offer comfort and be comforted when life falls apart, and keeping me busy even during the doldrums of quarantine. And like anything truly wholesome, this experience is best enjoyed when shared. So I invite you to embrace that inspired, child-like inner self that whispers comfort and truth when the structures of our lives start to falter. Yes, there have been plenty of people I’ve met who shied away from the idea, who thought it must all be a joke, who were afraid of what they didn’t understand. One memorable Thanksgiving dinner took an especially awkward turn when one relative insisted that there were plenty of “real hobbies” out there that were “healthier,” conceding that some people (like me) apparently didn’t know how to “cope” with the pandemic. But all of us are finding ways to cope one way or another with the apprehension of a global health crisis, an erratic economy, and a rapidly evolving culture. For the attendees in NYC, the meetup was a judgment-free place to feel safe and comfortable in public again. As one put it, “I never thought in my life I’d ever do something like this, but it was so much fun.” As for myself, I prefer to boldly face these modern-day anxieties by attempting new, strange, even awkward experiences . . . with my favorite and fearless plush buddies ever at my side. •
Thanks to the following Instagram accounts for participating in this article: @instablahaj, @ryba_ne_pila, @hippo_hasit, @harbyseal, @timmymcfatty, @two_posh_plushies, @the_blahaj_bros, and @leo_cunningbear_and_friends, and of course @toothie_the_shark for the jawsome sweaters!
Also, a big thanks to the entire plushie community who have filled these past two difficult years with so many wonderful memories!