It started with the babies. Right when the winter freeze started getting cruel, a friend sent a photo of her adorable child all rugged up in a teeny-tiny, cozy onesie. Fawn-colored and fuzzy, it was the concept of warmth transformed into a piece of clothing. Even more ridiculously, it had ears on top, making my 1-year-old friend look like an ad for some kind of interactive experience called “What If Winnie the Pooh…But Real?” Looking at that photo was like looking at a photograph of utopia, knowing the reality of being inside it would be so much better than you could even imagine.
If it had just been this one baby, maybe I would have forgotten about it. But one by one, the babies in bear onesies kept coming: in an Instagram story, on Twitter, via Slack, in TikToks by people I didn’t even know. Then I started googling them myself, which I admit is dramatically illogical, as I am a childless hag. Wrapped in endless layers of thermal fleece and wool blanket, I sat on my couch, typing in endless variations on “baby bear romper” until an hour later I somehow reached the point of “daytime sleeping bag for stroller but for ADULTS” and figured I should probably log off.
But I was not able to let go of the idea that a children’s garment was rapidly becoming my platonic ideal of winter wear. I fantasize about having an opportunity to regress to babyhood, for the mortifying reason that I would simply love to forgo being responsible for anything. It also felt right for the hibernatory impulse that generally arrives when the temperature dips so low. Nobody is going out, so nobody is looking at you. You can wear what you want, and what you want is to be comfortable and warm. There’s a reason we all furiously bought the idea of hygge in the mid-2010s: It was representation for people who wished they were literally bears.
While the cuteness and comfort factors were obvious, I knew that the bear onesie had a kind of emotional pull too. Because of those lonely, early-pandemic lockdown days, many of us are now familiar with the concept of skin hunger, or the human body’s desire for touch. Touch doesn’t serve only emotional needs; deprived of it, our bodies can experience negative effects that dampen our mental health and immune system. In a TEDx Talk, neuroscientist Helena Wasling said that humans have a class of nerve — C tactile afferents — that respond specifically to touch, movement, and the temperature of the human body. That’s why hugs can mean so much to us, and why we missed even incidental touch when it suddenly disappeared from our lives. It does not take a therapist to look at this bear onesie and think, “fabric cuddle.”
I guess I talked about it enough to turn my dream into reality. My editor Slacked me, “LOL you should wear a bear onesie for a week.” And I was like, “OK, twist my arm.”
Buying a bear onesie
What started as the gleeful frenzy of doing something extraordinarily trivial for legitimate work purposes swiftly turned into a discouraging and unfun search. I quickly discovered that there is not really an adult equivalent of the perfect baby cocoon I was seeing everywhere.
Don’t get me wrong, there were lots of options. One teddy bear costume, from famed Halloween sexy-costume purveyor Leg Avenue, had the right ears but zero leg coverage. Another had perfect vibes but no ears. I rejected a colorful Care Bear–type item on the basis that I should not try to make this exercise more humiliating than it already was. I did not want to appropriate furry or gay culture by trialing anything labeled “adult bear suit.” (Plus, those were all really expensive.) Purchasing something silly online was, I discovered, kind of terrifying. The photos for one fleece jumpsuit had the model’s face blurred out, which made me feel like I was on a citizen investigator message board.
My frustration rose until I eventually opted for a onesie that was the most bearlike and the least infantilizing. But it wasn’t as fluffy as what I craved. So in a fit of pique, I lashed out and also bought a hot pink fuzzy onesie that felt more spiritually correct.
If you wear a bear onesie in the forest, are you really wearing a bear onesie?
On my first cozy day of wearing my bear onesie, I did a perfect day of puttering. I watched The Traitors, a fundamentally flawed and jumbled show that I still inhaled because it was the middle of winter and I had no plans. But for the most part, I forgot I was wearing a novelty item. Even when I looked in the mirror, with the hood down, I just looked like I was wearing a brown sweater. It was actually a bit scary how little of a difference it made to my life.
There were two irritating things about wearing it. The first was the classic onesie issue: Whenever you wear a one-and-done outfit, you have to take the whole thing off every time you go to the bathroom, which is both a hassle and makes you cold. I am a very hydrated person so I pee a lot, and this got very annoying very quickly. It’s also a lot of fabric and I fretted that it would fall into the toilet water. (This didn’t happen.) The other thing is that my onesie had a little stuffed tail that I kept sitting on. That’s right: I was continually giving myself a wedgie. That part was not comfortable; in fact, it was rather distressing.
But a nice thing about it was that, with its gigantic drop crotch and lack of familiarity with the concept of body-con, it was extremely comfortable and didn’t restrict your movement whatsoever. I went for a couple of long walks, which was mostly fine, though my legs felt sweaty at the end, which is not something that ever happens. However, when I did my little YouTube yoga classes, the hood would fall into my face, so I started tying the hood up with a hair elastic, which looked undignified.
One caveat: I did not sleep in this onesie. That’s because I wore it outside, and you don’t sleep in your outside clothes.
Wearing a bear onesie around other people
This is when it started to get a little spicy. I wore the onesie in a Zoom meeting — everyone laughed at my misfortune, and it felt nice to bring random cheer to my colleagues. Then I thought about how weird it is to perform likable self-deprecation in a professional setting and spiraled briefly. I wondered if my editor had given me this assignment on purpose, like some dog trainers suggest you give troubled animals a task or a mini backpack to make them feel like they are doing something. Was this onesie my backpack?
One evening, I had a few people over for dinner, and when my friend Rachel opened the door, she pointed at me and yelped, “What is this?” When I told her I was doing some stunt journalism, she nodded, then said, “I would have believed that was just a thing you had chosen to wear. You’re the only person I would think that about.” Hmmmm.
Now that I was around other people, I was more aware of wearing the onesie. I started to feel self-conscious because it reminded me of that obnoxious time in 2012 when a very specific kind of guy started wearing animal onesies “as a bit.” You know exactly the kind of guy I mean. Maybe you were that kind of guy, in which case, no offense. When I raised this, another friend reminded me that Ariana Grande and Miley Cyrus also wore animal onesies in their iconic live cover of “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” and I felt a lot happier about the whole situation.
I did wear the onesie to the grocery store a couple of times and literally nobody blinked an eye. New York City, baby!
Overall vibes of wearing a bear onesie
At the beginning of this experiment, I felt hopeful that this fashion choice would give me some emotional as well as physical comfort. However, apart from getting quite into wearing the same thing every day (one less decision I had to make), I was disappointed to find that I didn’t really feel different. Sure, it was protecting me from the fierce cold of a New York City winter, but as mentally freeing as it is to have a daily uniform — albeit one that might make people suspect your coping skills are not, like, A+ — I didn’t feel like I had been tucked into the bosom of a loving god.
Neuroscientist Wasling’s suggestions for fulfilling our need for touch mostly involve emotional connection and warm temperature rather than cozy textures: cuddling a pet, a warm bath, checking in with someone you love by phone or video call. And there you have the essential problem with the premise of my little test: The bear onesie wasn’t really about the bear onesie. It was about the idea of someone else taking care of you. Not just anyone, but someone who loves you so much they’d buy you a sweet little animal outfit and kiss you on the head every day. Basically, I was trying to buy a hug from my mother. You can’t get that on Etsy, unfortunately.
So that was depressing. Even worse: Thanks to the algorithm and my probably lax privacy settings, I started getting Instagram ads for other onesies. I was like, Bitch, I already have two. Then I started getting ads for a weighted dressing gown, and had to admit someone out there in the world of personal data harvesting really understood me and what I wanted deep down in my soul. I think I’m going to get one. It looks awesome. ●