Written for Therapy for Black Girls, July 14th, 2023
A few months ago, I came across this TikTok video by @mayte.lisbeth that pulled at my
heartstrings in a way I had never experienced before and brought tears to my eyes. Not only was
her raw vulnerability felt through my phone, but the emotions and pain she was experiencing was all too relatable for me. She expressed feeling as though she is dying from touch starvation, that as an adult she doesn’t get hugs and has a severe need to be touched. Furthermore, she listed all the rebuttals people on the internet would probably tell her to do, such as going to get a massage or your hair or nails done in order to be touched, to which she replied “none of those people love me.” Which is a fair point I had never thought of before. Yes, those experiences provide touch, but they are professionals offering a service, not genuine care. As I watched that video echo the exact same sentiments I had been feeling, it made me wonder how many other single Black women were having the same experience.
What is Touch Deprivation?
Before we get into discussing touch deprivation, it is important to understand what it is. Touch deprivation is also referred to as touch starvation or skin hunger. It occurs when you’re not receiving physical touch from other living beings. It doesn’t have to just be sensual or romantic touch either. Receiving touch from family members and friends is just as important. Some symptoms of touch deprivation include feelings of depression, anxiety, stress, difficulty sleeping, and low relationship satisfaction. Speaking from personal experience as a super affectionate person, who lives alone, being touch deprived is not an easy feat. When I am around family, I try to get my hugs and cuddles in as much as possible. But I find that the older I get, the less inclined they are to provide that for me. Well my grandparents and little siblings have no problem showering me with all the affection of course, but my parents take a little more work. I have received comments such as “you’re a grown woman” or “this is why you need a man.” I would be so shocked by that thought process, because my immediate response would be that I’m still your child no matter how old I get, so why would I stop needing hugs from a parent? Their reactions made me start to realize how often we receive touch, affection and comfort as children, but as we get older, we’re expected to not need that comfort anymore. Instead, we’re “supposed to ” be able to self soothe and provide that for ourselves or attain it from only a romantic partner. Which reminds me of this quote I saw from bell hooks in her book, Salvation: Black People and Love. She states “wanting too much affection, either verbal or physical, was a sign of not growing up. Often we were taught that cultivating the ability to hide and mask emotions was central to the process of maturation.” But why is that? I’m sure it traces back to the trauma of slavery and having to appear to be strong regardless of circumstances, and that message has continued to be passed down through generations. But I find it unfair how often our age is seen as indicative of a lack of need for comfort. As children, when we are hurt, scared, sad, or any other difficult emotion we are typically surrounded by someone to provide care and sooth us during that time. Why should that be any different as we age? As you read this, can you think of the last time you were held? What would you say are your sources of comfort?
Why is Touch Important?
During the Covid-19 pandemic, we started to recognize how much of our daily habits were taken from us. We were no longer going into the office or school, which resulted in not receiving hugs before leaving for the day, or handshakes, holding hands, or friendly hugs from colleagues or other people you would typically interact with. Due to how contagious the virus was, we were barely touching or being close enough to loved ones either. Which is why I think touch deprivation started to be discussed more around that time. However, receiving touch has always been important for us. When babies are first born, parents are told to have skin to skin contact to not only promote bonding, but to help regulate their temperature, heart rate and breathing. Being touched boosts the release of oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone,” which is commonly released during childbirth, breastfeeding, and orgasm. It aids with increasing attachment and empathy, and decreasing anxiety and depression. According to WebMD, human touch also helps to regulate sleep, digestion, and builds your immune system. Some people may be surprised to learn that the skin is the largest organ in the body. It’s what’s often most exposed but not as protected as the other organs. It has been said that touch is the most important, yet neglected of our senses.
Who is Impacted by Touch Deprivation?
When I originally began writing this article, I was only looking at it through the lens of a single person, living alone. Or as a therapist who sees so many clients that are also struggling with the same thing: yearning for comfort or to be held after a long day, living alone and not having as much interaction as they’d like, etc. But as I did more research, I was made privy to plenty of other populations that are impacted. Children in foster care or orphanages are a prime example and studies have been done to show the importance of touch for them. Newborns in the NICU are also in need of touch, which is why there are Cuddler Programs at hospitals, allowing volunteers to come in and hold them in order to help them get better and return home quicker. The elderly population are also more likely to experience touch starvation, especially if they’re in a nursing home or residential facility.
What Can You Do To Help It?
If you’re reading this and realize you identify with what I am describing, you may wonder what you can do to make a difference. Some of the common solutions I see and partake in myself include going to get my hair done, so I can receive scalp massages, getting my nails done or scheduling a monthly massage. I also would suggest using weighted blankets to help you feel comforted at night. I know this sounds cheesy, but I advise my clients to give themselves hugs too. We have to remember that we are able to provide our needs as well. And while obviously being held by someone else would probably feel better, it doesn’t mean that we can’t provide comfort to ourselves. I give myself foot massages when I get in bed after a long day and use my skincare and shower routine to be mindful and focus on my sense of touch as well. If you’re wanting some external sources of touch, find some affectionate family, friends, or partners that are able to meet your needs. If that doesn’t seem feasible, you can join certain hobbies that include touch, such as taking dance lessons or playing a contact sport. Another common solution is to get a pet. But if you’re looking for a less expensive solution, you could try dog sitting instead. Volunteering at one of the cuddler programs at a hospital near you is an option as well. Or if you have some friends who have babies and young children of their own, visiting them and getting some snuggles in, could do wonders for your mood as well. Plus odds are, the people with young children or full houses are probably experiencing the opposite problem and are all touched out. So you may be a welcome reprieve.