What Our Weighted Blankets Tell Us About Our Late-Capitalist Angst

Existential crisis magical thinking Amazon Prime = the Gravity Blanket

Summer Brennan

An illustration of a person sleeping on a bed with their arm dangling off the side. pngI first heard of the Gravity Blanket in a moment when the world outside my window seemed to be visibly falling apart.

Existential crisis magical thinking Amazon Prime = the Gravity Blanket

Summer Brennan

An illustration of a person sleeping on a bed with their arm dangling off the side. A weighted blanket covers their body.

An illustration of a person sleeping on a bed with their arm dangling off the side. A weighted blanket covers their body.

Image: Malte Mueller/Getty Images

II first heard of the Gravity Blanket in a moment when the world outside my window seemed to be visibly falling apart. It was December 2019. I was living in Paris, which had ground to a halt amid the worst general strikes in decades. The news from my native United States was similarly anxiety-provoking. And things would only get worse in the coming month; from boiling tensions between the U.S. and Iran to the fires ravaging Australia, the state of the world was enough to make anyone want to dive under the covers.

Weighted blankets made it onto countless lists of popular gifts this past holiday season, and they dominate the top of Amazon’s most-gifted bedding list. You may well have found one under your own tree. Since they first started being mass-produced a few years ago, Americans have enthusiastically reached for the comfort and velvety heft of these $200–300 blankets. Because…well, science. Or Instagram. Or something.

The concept of the weighted blanket is refreshingly low tech. There are no sensors, no plug-ins, no apps to download. It’s just a quilted comforter filled with tiny pellets or glass beads, that rests on your body like a giant bean bag. Advocates say it can “recalibrate your nervous system” and maybe even cure your insomnia.

There are a number of different companies making these blankets, but most brands similarly describe the experience as a hug: “the blanket that hugs you back,” (Magic Blanket) or “a gentle, loving embrace” (Gravity Blanket). It’s a compelling, if somewhat unsettling bit of advertising, like a marketing version of the famous six-word story attributed to Hemingway: For sale, loving embrace, never worn.

Although TIME Magazine called weighted blankets one of the “best inventions of 2018,” they aren’t new. They’ve just been given a new image — one perfectly in tune with a worldwide upwelling of dread. Long used for calming children with autism or sensory processing disorders, the blankets have now gone mainstream as a cozy sleep aid for anyone. But what does it say about our general state of being that a product invented for therapeutic purposes has suddenly become so popular? Is our obsession with weighted blankets emblematic of some collective existential angst?

I’m generally wary of things seen advertised on the internet. And as a longtime insomniac, I’m suspicious of any product claiming to be a miracle sleep cure. But I can relate to the kind of desperation that will lead a person to try anything.

I ordered a dark blue, 20-pound blanket, and waited for my life to be transformed.

TThe Gravity Blanket — the weighted blanket that started the trend — was created in 2017 by a group of guys in their twenties who were looking for something from what they called “the wellness space” to spruce up and launch on Kickstarter. They could not have chosen a better product at a better time. According to a McKinsey report released the same year, the “sleep health economy” had recently ballooned into a $30–40 billion mega-industry, with direct-to-consumer brands such as Casper, Parachute, and Brooklinen becoming ubiquitous. The Gravity Blanket Kickstarter campaign quickly blew past its initial funding goal of $21,500 and closed that May at over $4.7 million.

Online sales of mattresses, bedding, and sleep-related tech had already been on the rise before Gravity’s Kickstarter triumph. Around this time, new research into the benefits of sleep was starting to confirm what many very tired people had long felt: You can’t live a healthy life and also skimp on slumber.

Despite being an obvious necessity, high-quality sleep has now been rebranded as a luxury, an aspirational indulgence that also falls under the pious banner of virtuous living. The upscale gym chain Equinox offers sleep coaches at $500 for six sessions, and in her 2017 book Clean Beauty, Gwyneth Paltrow talks about “clean sleeping,” (a logical next step from “sleep hygiene”). We are not just tired, we are dirty with exhaustion. We are not just deprived; we are unclean.

We should probably look at why our society has grown so tired, angsty, and unsettled, and deal with that instead of buying the next new thing. But that kind of big-picture thinking is hard to do when you can’t sleep, and instead find yourself awake in the middle of the night, vulnerable to whatever new fad is promising to soothe your own specific suffering. In this case, a miraculous, technicolor dream-quilt.

AsAs I waited for the blanket to arrive, the world’s angst levels only seemed to increase. Crowds of angry demonstrators in yellow vests streamed directly past my building opposite the train station on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Martin and down towards Place de la Republique, filling the air with smoke from flares while the police attempted to disperse the crowd with tear gas. Protesters dressed in black smashed shop windows and sprayed defiant graffiti on the banks and wine shops that had already been barricaded with plywood. There was no Metro, no buses, and my street was blocked by police vans.

My Gravity Blanket, ordered via Amazon in Britain, had no hope of penetrating the turmoil.

While I waited, I read the reviews, many of which appear to be written by what I’d call “insomnia dilettantes,” saying that it knocked them right out. But these are the temporarily sleep-deprived; people who might sleep better if only they went to bed on time, stopped drinking so much coffee, and refrained from scrolling through upsetting tweets on their phones late at night.

For a chronic insomniac like me, managing sleep can be incredibly time-consuming. I try to practice impeccable sleep hygiene myself because the alternative is untenable. A lack of sleep starts small, but it can spiral. Studies have found the effects of sleep deprivation on the brain and body to be quite dire. Without sleep, you risk your health, your job, your relationships, your sanity, even your life.

I’m not alone in my sleeplessness; Some 70 million Americans struggle with insomnia, according to the CDC. And where are these sleepless multitudes? We are online. We go to our computers for things like rest, comfort, and connection, even if we rarely find them there. Online, we are together, but we are fractured. Sequential rather than concurrent. There are two panes of glass between every interaction. We crave connection, and we crave rest. Instead, we buy bedding.

This widespread insomnia has inspired some truly bizarre inventions. The Somnox Sleep Robot (currently on sale for $556) is a plush, kidney-shaped “sleep companion” the approximate size and weight of an infant that “breathes” with you throughout the night. The soothing sounds and gentle movement that it produces are supposed to help you stay more deeply asleep and simulate “affection.” The Guardian’s “Wellness or Hellness” columnist Rhik Samadder wrote that sleeping with a Somnox was like “being in bed with a baby Darth Vader.”

The Somnox, like the Gravity Blanket, is truly an invention for lonely times. In this digital age, and the era of #MeToo, many people have grown increasingly averse to social touch and, as a result, everyone’s probably a little touch-starved or, as it has also been called, “skin-hungry.”

I would not describe myself as touch-starved, but who wouldn’t want to try a blanket that feels like a hug? Just weeks ago I had no real idea what a weighted blanket even was, and now, suddenly, I was desperate to get my hands on one. It was starting to show all the marks of a true capitalist luxury item: The overwhelming urge to buy a thing you never knew you needed.

I was, however, slightly worried that my blanket would not be as transformative as the ad copy had promised. Like other fads, such as the Instant Pot, the SodaStream, or the K-beauty sheet mask, perhaps it would turn out to be just another moderately useful thing that attained cult status before receding back out of the limelight and into people’s closets.

I was promised my blanket three days earlier, but it had still not arrived. I called UPS and learned that although they had tried several times to deliver the package in my protest-stricken neighborhood, their drivers had now given up. My blanket had been sent to a pick-up point, a store a few streets over.

After dark, I went out, stepping over the broken glass of smashed shop windows, with the smoke from flares in the air and police vans still swarming the boulevards, to the little market where I was told my blanket awaited. But there was no box with my name on it. The blanket had not come.

Maybe the anticipation was part of my blanket’s mystical appeal. It had started to take on mythic qualities, like a medieval magic potion asking me to collect the tears of a white doe born of a white stag, under the light of a full moon on a cloudless night. The more unattainable the ingredient, the more potent its assumed effects.

TThe makers of weighted blankets tend to stress their clinical pedigree. Gravity doesn’t just promise a cozier bedtime experience. It claims to offer something called “Deep Pressure Stimulation,” which at least one scientific study has found to have physiological benefits, directly affecting your nervous system to calm you down. It’s not just for better sleep, the marketing copy suggests, but for anxiety.

Most of the science-backed benefits attributed to weighted blankets come from research on something called “the hug machine,” invented by the famous animal scientist and autism spokesperson Temple Grandin. Drawing upon her work creating devices to calm animals with gentle pressure before slaughter, the hug machine was successfully used to reduce stress in children with autism.

Grandin, who herself has autism, found as a young child that she felt calmed when hug-like pressure was applied to her body, but she did not like it when someone else hugged her. The sensation of another person embracing her was too overstimulating and stressful. While on a visit to her aunt’s Arizona ranch, however, she noticed that when cattle were being examined, they were confined in what’s called a cattle crush or squeeze chute. When the pressure was applied, the cattle calmed down.

Grandin went on to author more than 60 scientific papers related to animal behavior and welfare, and invented the “squeeze machine,” a device used to keep nervous cattle calm during slaughter. She believed the animals deserved a death that was as close to painless as possible.

The more cuddly, human-oriented hug machine came later. (Given its ominous origins, I was a little shocked the first time I saw a diagram of Grandin’s hug machine. The user enters it on all fours, not unlike cattle, and remains that way while the pressure is applied.)

In turn, the hug machine inspired other methods for applying gentle pressure, like weighted blankets for children on the autism spectrum. Although a controlled 2014 study found the weighted blankets made “no difference” in sleep benefits to autistic children, the children studied did say that they preferred them. (Is this not a kind of difference? A kind of benefit?)

As weighted blankets grew in popularity, critics pointed out the lack of conclusive evidence that they work as described, and Gravity has been forced to walk back some of its claims. Now, instead of saying the blankets can be used to “treat” various ailments, from insomnia and anxiety to post-traumatic stress and obsessive-compulsive disorder, the ad copy focuses on what the blankets “may” do.

But scientifically proven or not, a blanket is a potent symbol. The word “blanket” is from the old French — blanc and ette, meaning, a little white. A little space. A buffer.

I’m reminded of the blanket that I cherished as a child, and how it helped me sleep. A security blanket is, of course, a kind of placebo. As any anxious child can tell you, a beloved blanket is soothing by virtue of being deemed a beloved blanket. Believing it works is what makes it work.

I’d been checking back for several days, but the market that was supposed to receive my blanket stopped taking my calls.

TThe morning I finally got my package, I felt fragile. I hadn’t slept well. Then I got a text from the man at the little market, telling me that my 20-pound metaphor had arrived.

The box wasn’t as heavy as I’d expected when I carried it back to my studio apartment. Finally, pulling it out, I thought — is this it? It’s… a blanket. I laughed at the silly expectations I had placed on this thing.

And yet, when I sat with it over my shoulders before bed, the weight of it did set in. The sensation is not unlike when a beloved person places their hands on you, and you relax. It’s like the warm weight of a pet or a child.

When I lay under it for the first night, I slept for more than seven hours straight. The next day I was more refreshed and productive than I had been in months.

I went into this ready to write a takedown, but now I was tempted to write an ode. I had my second night of sleep under the Gravity Blanket, and once again I slept through the night. I slept under it for a third night, and when I woke up I wondered what time it was — was it 2 a.m., like usual? No, the clock said, it was 7:38 a.m. After the fourth night of uninterrupted sleep, I logged on to Gravity’s website to see if maybe they made bed jackets, too. On the fifth night, I broke my own careful rule and went to bed at midnight, but still, I woke up after seven hours of deep dreaming.

That day, for the first time in a while, I took a lunchtime walk down to the Seine, amazed to have the time to be up and out and aware in the sunshine. The next night was good, and the next, and the next.

Sleep is a retreat from the world, but it can also give you back the world if you have lost it. Insomnia can snowball, but so can hope — the kind bestowed by a good night’s rest.

Sure, maybe it’s a little opportunistic that the Gravity Blanket guys cashed in on our unrest, but that’s been the story of American capitalism since the days of medicine men selling questionable cures out of their wagons. It’s entirely possible that this blanket may be nothing more than the placebo effect in action, a security blanket for grownups. But after a month of better sleep, I don’t really care. I’ll take it.

Modern life is defined by unrest and uncertainty and large-scale existential angst. We grab whatever grace we can.

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