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touch starvation


There is a joke that people say about cold people – that their parents didn’t hug them enough – that seems to be true for me. My parents were not particularly physically affectionate people and I grew up not being accustomed to things like hugs between family members, which were normal in the North American context that I grew up in. I have heard a lot of people comment on the lack of physical affection that many Asian families like my own have, but I didn’t really think of my own family as strange. Instead, I saw the way that others were physically affectionate as strange. As a child, I saw my friends hold hands with their parents at shopping malls, cuddle their siblings while they watched movies on a couch, and kiss their grandparents’ cheeks. These were all gestures that seemed not only alien but incredibly uncomfortable to me. As I got older, I made exceptions to hug friends after not seeing them for a while because it became part of the social niceties of being a young adult and I didn’t want my friends to be put off by my prickly nature. But all in all, I was entirely not affectionate nor was I comfortable with physical affection.


I can remember the day that this changed. It was two days before Christmas in 2017 and a few friends and I had gathered at my friend Hannah’s apartment. It was late, almost past midnight, and we were about to go out to a bar but we were tired after a long day of work. I lay down on Hannah’s single bed, along with two of my other friends as she played music on her Bluetooth speaker. Pressed up against them in that confined space, they talked about their days but I didn’t say anything at all. I closed my eyes and felt their warmth coming from all around me. Hannah, seeing us all lying on her bed, jokingly told us to get up and climbed on top of us. As I felt the heat from the bodies of my three friends who I loved, I thought to myself – this is nice.


Since then, I’ve come to enjoy physical affection. It did not happen all at once but rather, when I moved out and the normal ways that I took in and understood affection within my family structure disappeared, I came to understand the reassurance of human touch as a tangible gesture of affection. It was a little strange at first to depart from my norms but the normalcy of everyone around me made me understand that it didn’t have to be strange if I didn’t want it to be. Now, I like to hug my friends when we meet up, whether it’s been two days since I saw them last or two years. When it comes to people that I’m involved with romantically, I like hugs from behind, holding hands when we walk, and innocent touches like the calming presence of a hand on a knee. With my closest friends, I like when we share beds after a night out or on a vacation and just feeling their presence in a physical way. I’m still not affectionate with my family but I like being in a closer proximity to them than I had before.

そのときから、私は身体的な愛情表現を楽しむようになった。この変化は急に起こったわけではない。それまでは「家族」の枠の中での「愛情」を理解していた。だから、実家を出たことでその枠が取り払われて、人間同士が触れ合いの安心感を、具体的な愛情として理解するようになったんだと思う。それまで持っていた概念から自由になることは、最初は慣れなかったし、変な感じがした。けれど、周囲の人にとっては当たり前のことだったから、自分次第で慣れることもできると気づいた。 今では、最後に会ったのが2日前でも、2年前でも、友達と会うときはハグをするのが好き。恋愛関係にある人とは、後ろからハグされたり、手を繋いで歩いたり、膝に手を置いたりする仕草が好き。親友たちとは、夜出かけた後や旅行先でベッドをシェアしたり、ただ彼らの存在を感じながら一緒にいるのが好き。家族とはまだまだ身体的な愛情表現はないけれど、以前よりも距離が近くなった気がする。

Recently, my life has changed in many ways. I moved back into my family home in Canada after living alone in a studio apartment in Seoul, South Korea for over two years about a month before COVID-19 began to spread around the world. Now, I am no longer surrounded by the friends that had been part of my daily life while living in Seoul, but by people that I forgot to keep in contact with when I went abroad. Such is the life of a returning expatriate. And while I had the intention of re-discovering the charms of my hometown, reconnecting with old friends, and meeting new people, my opportunities to do so have been severely limited by the pandemic. With my friends at the other side of the world and my options for socialization greatly limited, I have been feeling very isolated lately, as I’m sure many others have.


I talk to my friends every day – people in South Korea, in parts of Europe, in other parts of North America. The Internet is an amazing tool that has allowed me to be able to maintain these relationships over distances in a way that would never be possible if I had existed in another lifetime. However, seeing someone as a box on a screen and hearing their voice through a speaker just isn’t the same as being with them in-person. I find myself craving the physical presence of other people in a way I never have before and in an era where we’re told to distance ourselves at least two metres from others, this is becoming difficult to deal with. Those small gestures that I missed so much were physical markers of affection – a way to communicate feelings of love, support, kinship, or compassion without words – and with the absence of those acknowledgements, I felt isolated.


Recently, a friend told me about a phenomenon that she’s discovered recently – touch starvation. With my discovery of this phenomenon, I feel reassured that this sense of isolation is not something exclusive to me. Human beings need to touch others and to be touched by others. A pat on the back, a hug, an arm looped through an arm. These are small things that I always overlooked but now feel the absence of strongly. As I said previously, I’m not physically affectionate with my family at all and even the thought of being so is something that seems strange to me, so though I am not alone in the sense that I still live with people, I have never felt more lonely.

最近、ある友達が「タッチ・スターベーション(touch starvation)」、つまり「触れ合いへの飢え」という現象について教えてくれた。この現象を知って、私と同じような孤独感を感じている人は他にもいるんだと再確認した。人間はお互いに触れ合うもの。背中をぽんとたたいたり、ハグしたり、腕を組んだり。小さなことだから特に気に留めていなかったけど、今となってはすごく恋しい。前に言ったように、私は家族に対して身体的に愛情表現をすることは全くないし、そのアイデア自体に慣れない。だから、家族と一緒に住んでいるという点では一人ぼっちではないけど、ここまで孤独に感じたことはなかった。

Of course, one’s comfort level with physical affection is dependent on a variety of factors including cultural context, with some cultures being more toward physical displays of affection than others. Someone like me, seen as ‘cold’ by people in the North American context that I was raised in, can be seen as not deviating from a norm elsewhere like the Asian cultural background that my parents raised me within. Everything is relative in this sense, including what amount of touch is considered touch starvation so it’s best not to think of it in terms of numbers but as a restriction of one’s personal needs.


According to Texas Medical Center, touch starvation can lead to negative mental and physiological effects. Human touch makes us feel safe and like we belong so of course, being deprived of that can have negative effects. These can include stress, depression, anxiety, problems sleeping, increased heart rate and blood pressure, and more. I never thought that touch starvation could be a real phenomenon prior to this pandemic, but I do find myself more stressed and prone to depression than normal.


I’ve done some reading on proposed solutions to touch starvation. Some people say that things like weighted blankets, massagers, or body pillows can simulate human touch. Others say that masturbation or fostering a pet can help with touch starvation too. Some people report that taking a hot bath can help when we are craving human touch. I don’t know whether any of these things will be able to help with my touch starvation but everything is a learning process including self-care and so I plan on exploring some of these alternatives.


For many including me, this pandemic has been about adjusting and finding alternatives and for the most part, I have been relatively successful in doing so. Instead of traveling to new countries, I have been taking road trips to nearby cities and towns and re-discovering Canada’s local environmental beauty. I haven’t been able to meet new people, but I’ve been reconnecting with old friends and spending time with my family. I don’t go to new restaurants, but I’ve been cooking and baking more than ever. But it’s hard to think that something like taking a bath or buying an expensive blanket will help me to fill the gaps that touch starvation has left me with. The most difficult part of this current world health situation is that no one knows when it is going to end. We can’t look toward a certain day and think – everything will be okay once we reach this date or that date. The reality is that no one even knows if this will end and if life will ever go back to the way that it once was. A wave from two metres away will never be the same as a hug from a friend and I don’t know how I will cope if it becomes a prolonged replacement for it. For now, all I can do is try the alternatives that others have proposed and look back on my memories – of hugging a friend when we met at a train station, of lying down with friends for a nap before we go out, of holding someone’s hand as we weave through a crowded street – and hope that one day, we’ll get to a point where it’s safe to do so again.


Have you been experiencing touch starvation as well? What methods have worked for you in dealing with isolation during this pandemic?


Images by Caitlyn

Japanese Translated by Mia, Kiara and Hikari

Edited by Kiara and Hikari

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