WAIt, How did squishies become a thing?

By Rebecca Deczynski. Photos by Kevin Aranibar

Published on July 20, 2018 on Snapchat Discover

First came the slime. Then the fidget spinners. Now, though, those top trends of summers past have fallen—to the squishy.

Squishies are, well, what they sound like: cute, soft things that are just softer-than-normal stress balls in an array of shapes and designs. (Typically, they resemble kawaii characters and cartoony foods.) Sometimes, they’re scented, most likely with an aroma that’s a heavily sweetened version of a dessert, like blueberry pie or strawberry shortcake. They are everywhere, from your local Walmart to Amazon, which stocks thousands of them.

The squishy rise to fame has been slow and steady since about 2011, when online collector communities started to pop up. Past phenomenons captured the consciousness (and wallets) of only a particular type of group. Sometimes, like the Silly Bandz of yore, it has a specific age range. Other times, like in the case of Funko Pop! dolls, it’s limited to a particular fandom. Squishies, however, have risen (metaphorically and literally) in a league of their own.

Vivian Nguyen, who posts squishy-centric videos on her YouTube channel cyndercake415, pins the success of squishies to multiple angles of appeal: they’re cute, they’re fun to squish, they’re collectible, and they’re a vehicle for all sorts of ASMR experiments. They’re available in all kinds of shapes and sizes and characters and scents—there really is a squishy for every kind of person.

“A lot of people collect squishies for the satisfaction of having them because they’re cute—so they don’t want to squish them too much because [the squishy] can become defected and cracked,” she says. “But there are also people who sometimes buy duplicates of the same squishy, so that they can use one for stress relief and the other to just have.”

There is no one single factor that has caused squishy mania because those who obsess over them obsess for different reasons.

Vivian was first introduced to squishies by a classmate in 2011. By 2013, she saw that a community of squishy collectors had emerged on YouTube, and she started to make her own videos as she built her collection. “Before, it was a really isolated community,” she says, “I wasn’t very serious about it back then because it was just a hobby. But when I found out that there were people who were actually doing it consistently, I thought it would be cool to do that.”

Holly Woodruff, another YouTuber who has been on the squishy bandwagon (and in fact can even be considered a leader of it) for seven years, found a global community when she first started sharing her collection online. “[Some squishies] were hard to find, and many were extremely rare—some were sold for several hundred dollars,” she says. “Trading was a huge thing, and many from my collection are from trades from people in Asia that had access to them.”

Squishy videos usually unfold in a standard way: collectors unbox them on-camera and react to the sensation of seeing, smelling, and touching each squishy for the very first time. In this way, they capture a genuine reaction—in the best case, nothing short of pure delight, and, in the worst case, slight disappointment.

When starting a squishy collection, there are no limits on exactly where to start and where to end. The most unique squishies are bought online or in specialty shops; collectors do still trade amongst themselves. Typically squishies share the same kawaii-quality of design, but tiny details set them apart from one another. A truly devoted squishy collector doesn’t want just one cute original: they want it in several colors, too.

That’s why many squishy-lovers (like Holly and Vivian both) have collections that number in the hundreds. There’s no one way to keep them, though. “I keep them in a box, have them in their original packaging because I feel that the packaging adds more value to the squishy,” says Vivian. “But I know there are a lot of people that have shelves full of squishies on display, either organized by color coordination or sizes or animals—all that stuff.”

The mania for these soft toys in the past year leaked into the mainstream, and bit by bit, the demand for squishies rose, until they finally reached the ultimate cultural relevance goal marker: they were knocked off.

“When squishy creators have the chance to make their own design, they often contact companies in China to create the mold,” she says. “So, what happens is that those companies don’t discard the mold, and tend to use it to make more profit out of it. It’s upsetting.” Some squishy brands are even well-known—at least, in the collector community—for offering knockoffs of some more popular squishies that are created by specific brands or designers.

Now, it’s easy to find squishies—but that doesn’t mean they’re the real deal. In fact, the difference between “real” and “fake” can be pretty significant, often resulting in bad paint jobs, physical defects, and generally, a less pleasing squish—in addition to blatant plagiarism.

Another squishy controversy arose in May when a child in the U.K. suffered chemical burns from a squishy after its insides somehow melted, causing the toy to burst. A representative from the squishy’s manufacturer told The Sun that the toy must have been physically heated in order to cause such a reaction—which also points to another downside of widespread popularity: misuse.

“A big thing on YouTube are ‘squishy dare’ videos where kids are dared to burn their squishies, bite them, throw them in the toilet, et cetera,” says Holly. “Kids shouldn’t burn or heat squishies. It’s like the Tide Pod thing all over again.”

Still, in the face of mainstream mishandling, copying, and downgrading, squishies have retained their core, loyal audience of fans that they’ve had for years now, and they’re continuing to pop up in new, innovative forms. “Right now there's a huge interest in the jumbo, larger-than-life squishies,” Holly says. “I think they’re going to just keep getting bigger and bigger, and as exciting as it is, I’m worried I will have to get a bigger house to store them all!” (While typical squishies tend to be just a few inches big, most jumbo versions tend to be just bigger than the size of an adult’s hand. But some can even be the size of a large beach ball.)

Holly isn’t unique in her desire to keep growing her collection. While anyone can appreciate a single squishy, either ordered in the form of a specific, beloved character, or picked up on a whim from Target, true squishy-lovers seek all kinds. These toys sit at the trend crossroads of ASMR, fidget devices, and practically every collectible item that has been developed in the decades-long wake of Beanie Babies. But it’s not necessarily their multipurpose (or, at least, multilevel) appeal that makes them special. It’s their collectors.

When YouTubers like Vivian and Holly share their squishy hauls, show off their collection, and even compare and contrast real versus knockoff, the result is something intimate. They’re not posting slime videos that, while also inevitably pleasing for those making them, are crafted with the primary purpose of delighting a viewer, and they’re not fidget spinners, wielded mindlessly and constantly.

As they unwrap a squishy for the first time and press into its soft surface, they can’t help but radiate pure, innocuous joy. It’s their collection, their obsession, and they’re simply happy to share it with you. “Squishies are tactile, comforting, and they’re cute,” says Holly. “What's not to love?”