Before Coronavirus struck, 75% of adults agreed with the statement, “ Americans suffer from skin hunger.” I can’t even imagine what the numbers would be now (not only in the US but on a global scale) as, for many people, the need for physical touch has become almost as strong—perhaps even stronger—as the fear of the virus itself.
It’s been seven weeks since I have touched another human being. Two weeks without any physical contact with another person, without even getting close.
If we’re getting specific, I’ve hardly even been within 10 feet of anyone. Interactions with the cashier at the pharmacy and the grocery store are by far the closest I’ve come to another person. How much do we need physical intimacy compared to the food I buy at the grocery store? Will I eventually end up going there in desperate search of both?
The other night, I started watching The Handmaid’s Tale and I found myself wondering how difficult it must be for those people to live without any real form of intimacy, with hardly any meaningful human touch. I started to question how difficult it would be to live without physical intimacy—and then I realized I was currently living it.
Two weeks ago, I was in Santiago, Chile. I used to live there and went down to visit my friends, celebrate my 30th birthday, and work remotely for two months. When I left the US for Chile on January 9th, I don’t believe I knew what coronavirus was. Soon after, the news began to spread (quickly) and I watched, from a very distant corner of the world, as the coronavirus saga began to unfold. I wondered how long it would take to make it down to Chile. I wondered when and where in the world I would be when it arrived, along with the consequences and the chaos.
In the end, it wasn’t in Chile. The day before I left I went to a boxing class and there were some jokes about hand sanitizer, but I could hear in people’s voices that there was a legitimate concern behind it. I flew home on Sunday, arrived in the US Monday and the boxing studio closed by Tuesday, along with the rest of the city of Santiago. They did a complete 180 within only a few days.
The night before I left, Saturday night, there was a going-away party for me at our apartment. There wasn’t much mention of coronavirus. It had reached the point where people knew it was making its way there, but nothing had been closed, people were still living life as normal. That night was the first time when someone had hinted at what was to come—offering a fist bump for a greeting, instead of a kiss on the cheek, the customary greeting. No one was concerned about the impending apocalypse (yet). We stayed up until 6am and had an amazing night – my last one for who-knows-how-long, and I can only be thankful that we truly went all out. What I love about Chile, and Latin American culture in general, is that they will celebrate: they will go out dancing, they will party as if it were their last chance.That way, when it accidentally does end up being the last party, you have no regrets.
At one point, I went over to Andres, one of my roommates and good friends, and I gave him the biggest bear hug ever. He’s a big guy and he stood there as if he were a tree—or a very friendly bear—as I hugged him, eyes closed, trying to take a mental photograph of the feeling. I had no idea this would be the last dose of intimacy I would have to sustain me through the next two weeks, let alone until who-knows-when. At the time, none of the many small choices to connect extra intimately with my friends on my last day seemed at all significant. However, I can’t help but thank my past self for embracing intimacy throughout that day, even though I had no idea that seven weeks later I would be sitting here, still feeding my soul with those memories.
In case you didn’t know, there is a term to refer to this: skin hunger.
It might sound weird at first, the word skin paired with hungry. We don’t eat skin and our skin isn’t capable of feeling hunger—or is it?
Researchers use this term because studies have found that physical touch is essential to our health and wellbeing. Consider some of the other basic physiological needs that we have, such as food, water, and sleep. We crave food, but we don’t simply eat because we want food–you need food and water to keep functioning and to keep living. You may not feel tired, or you may not want to sleep, but you need sleep. Research suggests that affection is also one of these vital human needs.
As Owen Marcus says in one of our podcast interviews, “Connection is the essence of what makes us human.” Physical intimacy is a conduit for connection. The fact that we share physical intimacy is not what makes us human as much as the fact that we need physical touch to feel human. It has the power to heal and a lack of it has the power to be destructive. People who feel deprived of affection are statistically more lonely, less happy, more likely to experience stress and depression, and are in worse health in general. Not only that but they are more likely to experience alexithymia, a condition that impairs their ability to express and interpret emotion. In adulthood this can have profoundly consequential effects on our capacity to interpret and express emotions and in childhood it can be even more detrimental, as our developmental pathways are forged with deeper and longer-lasting damage. As Tiffany Field, author of the book Touch, notes, “A child’s first emotional bonds are built from physical contact, laying the foundation for further emotional and intellectual development.”
However, humans are not alone in this basic yet indispensable need to nourish minds and bodies with affection. Field also shares that “Touch, more than any other sense, is universal across cultures and species. Most animals know touch is critical to life. Rat pups do not survive without their mother rat’s tongue-licking touch. Monkeys huddle in a corner when they are touch-deprived.”
It is not what makes us feel human.
It is what makes us feel alive.