It’s estimated that over one third of British adults still sleep with a childhood soft toy. Stylist’s associate editor Anna Fielding looks at why we can’t quit our oldest friend.
You can be a grown-up, sophisticated woman in many ways. You learned to navigate the wine list years ago. You have strong opinions on Myanmar. You own at least one black dress with extremely complicated pleating.
But nestled among your pillows is… your cuddly toy. This is my bear. I am somewhat embarrassed – I feel I have to point out, right here, to you, that of course I don’t sleep with him any more. Of course he’s on the bookshelf.
But Bear makes me feel my emotions, as though my skin is still as baby soft as when I first had him. He is a talisman from an innocent time and I feel, simultaneously, that I must defend him and that he can shield me. He is steadfast and a source of comfort, but I also know – laughing an adult cocktail party laugh, a guilty, cynical betrayer’s laugh – that he’s just a toy. And yet…
We choose special objects when we’re children and we invest in them emotionally: the University of Bristol discovered that children wouldn’t accept even identical substitutions for their bear. We carry that attachment into adulthood and, as a further study from VU University Amsterdam shows, we still turn to them for comfort: hugging an inanimate object can lower stress levels.
Your childhood cuddly companion is a passport to a simpler life, a repository for memories, consistency in a changing world. It’s no wonder we love them. We asked five, fully grown-up women exactly why their childhood soft toy still remains their forever friend.
A surrogate sister
Writer Poorna Bell knows her love for her teddy Tom isn’t quite rational
My mum called, wanting to know which of my old toys I wouldn’t mind giving to my beloved baby niece. Minnie Mouse? Couldn’t care less. Grumpy the Care Bear? Meh. Tom? “ABSOLUTELY NOT,” I yelled. Mum went quiet.
He was given to me on the day I was born, and looks extremely good for his age. His stuffing has never leaked, he has sturdy legs and arms, and his eyes are a deep orange. His smell is imprinted on my soul, he is my anchor to safety and warmth.
Tom now stays with my parents out of practicality – my flat is too small to store him, and I feel having a teddy bear out on display as a 38-year-old woman might creep out any prospective dates, but he is an object with links to such powerful emotions and memories.
Mum joked that she was going to wash him ahead of the Stylist photo shoot and I swear to god, my heart almost stopped. I don’t like to hold on too tightly to material things, but if Tom got lost or damaged, I think I would be unbelievably sad – I feel sad even just thinking about it.
As you get older, the number of things you keep from your childhood rapidly shrinks, and he is a very precious reminder that family, and feeling safe and loved, is not something you should take for granted.
Tom has earned his place in my heart because he has played one of the most important roles in my life. Once upon a time, he was my sister’s understudy.
When I was four, my eight- year-old sister was sent to live with my grandparents in India. I was too little to remember the last conversation we may have had. I don’t have a clear, linear understanding of her leaving. But I knew that an incredibly important part of me had been taken away.
In her absence, I wrapped my arms around Tom as if he were a golem, his physicality the stand in for someone precious who was now thousands of miles away. I may not have been able to remember my sister holding me, but I was aware of the phantom of a person who should have been there and yet wasn’t.
My sister and I were reunited four years later, when we all moved to India for a while. It remains one of the most joyous times of my life and we are still very close.
But I have never forgotten the comfort Tom gave me at a time I needed it most, and for that, he deserves to be treated well in his twilight years.
Journalist Jude Rogers’ bear Oscar came to her rescue later in life
My teddy bear only lived in my childhood home for two years. Because I got my first teddy at 16. How did that happen?
My story isn’t one of a terrible parent who wouldn’t allow cuddly toys. I had a monkey called Mickey who was dearly loved; I enjoyed being the weird kid whose stuffed companion wasn’t ursine.
But when my teen years arrived (when you’re trying to desperately work out who you are) I started to wonder why I’d never had a bear like everyone else. I moaned about it to my mum, as I moped around the house listening to miserable indie music. And bless her, for Christmas 1994, I got some vouchers for Our Price and a beige bear with a wonky velvet bow.
I called him Oscar. I loved him immediately. He sat on my bedside table as I documented my first dates, hangovers and sexual encounters in my diary.
I was a late starter, desperately hanging onto my childhood, which had been traumatised by my father’s sudden death when I was five. My mum had remarried, and I now had an adorable little brother, James. In hindsight, perhaps I was craving for myself what he was having: a normal childhood, full of normal childlike things. Maybe Oscar was me allowing myself to be like everyone else, a few years late.
I still allowed myself to be a teenager, however. I remember being home one night on my own, curtains drawn, lights off, dancing to The Cure, with Oscar under one arm. He gained a beanie hat that had seen action (of all kinds) at Reading Festival, and some blue mirrored sunglasses nicked off a boy. I never hugged Oscar at night or talked to him. I just liked having him there, something impossibly comforting and loving in the background, easing that awkward passage to adulthood.
One of my all-time favourite photos of myself features him. I’m sitting on the single bed in my first university room, a few hours before my mum would drive off home. He is in the background, sunglasses on, and I’m beaming, full of nervous excitement about what was ahead.
He never went back to my mum’s. He came with me, shipped between flats in bags and boxes for two decades. He now sits on a tiny Spider-Man sofa in the bedroom of my five-year-old son. He gets cuddled lots, dressed up, and generally has a great time. I often smile at him silently. Sometimes I swear he smiles back.
Just a leg of lamb
Author Anna James can’t let go of the remains of her toy, Lamb Chops
All he is these days is a very tattered leg. A bit of cloth, really. But he’s still in my house, tucked away to preserve what’s left of him.
As a baby I was given a stuffed sheep toy that was duly named Lamb Chops. No one has ever taken responsibility for this name, although it lends a certain macabre poignancy to the fact that all that is left of him now is a leg. A threadbare and, honestly, deeply aesthetically off-putting leg that I am horrified to display, yet can’t quite bring myself to throw away.
I wasn’t into stuffed animals as a child; it was books I was obsessed with, even when I was tiny. I kept a library of books at the bottom of my bed, and used my tiny plastic tricycle as a mobile library which I’d cycle round and round the house in, pausing every once in a while to choose a picture book from my basket.
But Lamb Chops (Lamby for short) was different, and ever-present, and I was an enthusiastic and dedicated “snucker”. (“Snucking” is an invented family word for the distinct and bizarre way I used to suck my thumb while simultaneously stroking Lamb Chops with the fingers on the same hand.)
When my snucking level threw Lamb Chops into a state of disrepair, I was presented with another sheep toy – this time christened Mint Sauce (really). But I had no time or love for Mint Sauce, who is still in pristine condition at my parents’ house, or possibly at a charity shop by now.
Who knows why I connected with Lamb Chops so much as a child, but I do know why I’m so reticent to get rid of his last remaining fibres – and perhaps it is even subconsciously all rooted in the same thing.
My mum was very poorly during her pregnancy with my younger sister, and so I spent a lot of that time with my grandparents in a haze of blissful first memories in the Scottish countryside. My grandparents were a huge part of my childhood and books were fundamental to our relationship; they often bought my little sister and I carefully and thoughtfully chosen story books, and walks along the river to their local bookshop were a regular fixture.
All of this was a key inspiration for my own children’s book series, Pages & Co, about a girl who lives in a magical bookshop with her grandparents. My grandma and grandad both died before the book was published or even written, and it has made me hyper-sentimental and nostalgic for all the items I associate with them: old birthday cards, books they bought me, photos and suchlike. And Lamb Chops – or at least his leg – is part of that list.
If he had been more whole before they had passed away, I would have no doubt preserved him like that, but all he is now is a very tattered leg, and so that is how he stays. A very loved remnant of the sheep that belonged to a very loved child.
A formal kind of love
Teddy, who belongs to Stylist’s Moya Crockett, isn’t cute or fluffy
I don’t cart Teddy around with me or sleep alongside him at night like I used to, but I would never give him up (in fact, the very thought makes me feel like a fretful toddler). My first word was “Teddy”, which tells you all you need to know about how much I loved my first stuffed animal.
He was a gift from my grandparents. Almost as big as one-year-old me and covered in soft flaxen fur, he contains a mysterious device that causes him to let out a long, low, mournful sound – more like a sheep’s baa than a bear’s growl.
But Teddy is not cuddly and he can barely be described as a toy. Sturdy of torso, straight of back and stiff of limb, hugging him is not unlike wrapping your arms around an extremely firm, overstuffed pouffe. He has a sorrowful, dignified expression – an incongruously formal and rather grand toy to give to a baby, who could not possibly appreciate the craftmanship.
But then my grandparents were formal people. Born to lower-middle-class families in south-east London in the Thirties, they experienced the loneliness of having parents who were either physically absent or emotionally far away. After peripatetic WW2 childhoods, they married and moved to Buckinghamshire, reinventing themselves as the archetypal middle-class, middle-England couple.
That meant good things: decent cars, a nice home, holidays in France. But it also strengthened a certain reserve that might have stood a chance of breaking down in a less conventional environment.
My grandad, who died when I was 18, had a silly sense of humour and a surprising artistic streak. But he could also be strict and imposing, big on table manners and low on verbalised emotion. My grandma, meanwhile, has defied expectations to become warmer and softer in her late 80s. Until my early 20s, though, she was often aloof and uncompromising.
I’ve no doubt that they loved me. But something prevented them from ever being able to articulate that love. Instead, I read between the lines for evidence of affection: my grandad’s stoic determination to fix my Barbie doll when her head fell off; the note my grandma sent me when I finished my degree – the words “very proud” underlined. And Teddy.
He isn’t squishy or cute or fluffy, but that suits where he came from. And I know what he represents: love.
It’s in the eyes
Junior beauty writer Ava Welsing-Kitcher sees herself in her toy, Cutie
Like most little girls, I had a pretty ferocious love for my toys. But I truly, truly loved one of them in a way that, in hindsight, just about exceeds what I’ve ever felt for a boyfriend. My passion lit up when a Beanie Baby named Cutie was given to me aged six. I don’t remember where she came from, but I had my own little version of myself, with toffee skin and short curly hair.
It helped that she was a Beanie Baby. In the Noughties, they were the teddies to have, and Cutie was a rare edition from America. I would take great pride in hand washing Cutie’s floral pink dress and her white knickers in the sink, then pegging them up to dry beside my own dungarees. When her knickers got lost (my mum said they blew away; to this day I think my ex best friend Jessica stole them), I was devastated. How could Cutie go around without any knickers? Her pain and embarrassment was mine.
I took extra special care of her after her ordeal. I kissed her seven times on each cheek before bed in a worryingly compulsive way and guilt-tripped my teacher into letting her poke her head out of my rucksack. As my cuddly toy collection grew, I ensured she never felt replaced or undermined by picking her up and hugging her in front of my other toys.I literally thought she was my child.
There’s one slight issue with her, however… her eyes. They’re amber, gleaming, and too realistic for such a cute little toy. It was only as I grew older, and heard urban legends of toys possessing their owners, that those eyes became a problem. It coincided perfectly with my teenage disdain for displaying cuddly toys in my bedroom.
I still use it as an excuse to store her lovingly wrapped in an old jumper inside a shoebox in my hallway cupboard, but it’s really because of those eyes. My sister is convinced Cutie wants payback for all the years she was banished from my bed, so whenever our paths cross during a clean out, I give her a quick sterile hug and breathe in her familiar smell. Just in case. I could never throw her out though – even with those eyes. The thought of her alone and in landfill makes me too, too sad.
Images: Dennis Pedersen, Getty