Taking It All Off: Black Women, Nudity, and the Politics of Touch

Everyone who knows me even remotely well knows I don’t do hugs. Get too close physically and I am quick to let you know that you’re invading my personal space!

So of course, hilarity regularly ensues since it seems I’ve managed to attract a significant number of friends whose primary love language is physical touch. And frankly, sometimes I think these friends just like to lay hands on me for the hell of it.

You can imagine, then, my skepticism when my crew of sista prof friends planned a spa day at one of those places that boasts not only unlimited use of saunas, swimming pools and a range of pay-as-you-go spa services, but also, to my chagrin, openly nude bathing pools. I had heard of such places and vowed never to go to one. Anyway, I decided to be brave, because spa days are high on my list of self-care strategies. But I swore to my friends that anything I’d be doing there must involve clothing—or it wouldn’t involve me.

And the goddesses laughed. Hysterically.

When we arrived, after a good amount of deliberation, several of us decided to get the daily special—a body scrub and massage. The catch was that these body scrubs, which require you to be completely naked, happened in an open room with at least three other naked women, being scrubbed by middle-aged Asian ladies in bras and panties.

So 2 hours later, there I was following my equally naked homies into the collective showers, and then into the warm bathing pools to wash off, in preparation for our body scrubs.

My body scrub was in a word: delectable. I was almost an instant convert.

And afterwards, when me and my compadres climbed back into the warm bathing pools to relax, we had not only shed our dead skin cells but a good degree of our self-consciousness with each other.

We began to talk about Black women and the politics of touch, wondering if our mamas, each from very different generations would ever even consider coming to a place like this. All of us concluded that, “No. They wouldn’t.”

We claim in Black women’s communities to believe in the power of touch—to believe in the “laying on of hands” a la Ntozake Shange. In many evangelical charismatic churches, there is still foot washing, laying on of hands, and anointing with oil. And a significant segment of Black women attend these churches. But I’m not so sure how effective these moments of touch are given the kinds of conservative theology that otherwise tell us to be at war with our flesh and its desires.

Our cultural investments in touch have largely become another casualty of late capitalism/neo-liberalism. We routinely economically outsource something so basic as touch, and we ask (usually non-Black) people of color to do labor that we have become uninterested in doing for ourselves. We buy beauty products and pay for manicures, pedicures, and massages, to the tune of multi-billions of dollars every year. And while there is an economic rationale for having some one else get your feet together, I think our reasons are deeper.

As I lay on the table, each time my masseuse ran the exfoliating gloves over the palms of my hands, I had an intimate memory of a lover who intertwined his fingers with mine, our hands palm to palm, as we coupled. And I longed for that touch and the intimacy that came with it again. But what does it mean that I have relegated touch in my own life to the act of sex?

That is why touch is so scary. It forces you to be fully present in your own body, to come face to face with its longings and its deprivations, to confront bodily memories that an otherwise hyper-intellectual life can allow you to avoid on most days.

In a word, touch makes us vulnerable.

And that is why it was particularly egregious, when at the end of my scrub, as I prepared to climb off the table, my masseuse ended our very light conversation about my life—Married? No. Children? No. Boyfriend? No. – with a bit of what she presumed to be much needed advice: “You should try to lose some weight.” Come again? (I asked both internally and aloud.) She repeated, a little less sure this time, but still definitively: “You should try to lose some weight. Diet foods might help with that.”

Injury. That is really the only word for it. Even though I wrote recently about the same thing here, saying it to myself and having someone else say it to me are two different things. And let me also acknowledge that when we ask other women of color to do these spa services, we are often asking them to do exploitative kinds of emotional labor. I try to be mindful of that. I take responsibility for my own emotions and acknowledge my privilege as a middle-class Black woman who can afford to pay some one to wash my body. So while I don’t expect  these women to offer me emotional care, I do expect them not to do emotional injury. 

Part of the reason, I had come to the spa was to engage in a bit of mind-body healing after a fairly serious recent health ordeal, an ordeal that healed my illness and relieved me of my gallbladder, but left me far from well. During my hospital stay, I experienced the kind of fat discrimination that I wouldn’t have believed until I saw other bloggers writing about it. This  poignant and powerful piece from Akiba Solomon and legendary Hip Hop DJ Kuttin Kandi, appeared during the 2nd day of my hospital stay.

To my doctors, I was an overweight, dark-skinned woman, worthy of all the fat-hating, misogynoir they could spew.  There were the doctors who insisted that I must be pregnant, one demanding that I take two pregnancy tests in under 24 hours.There were the medical residents who spoke to me with belligerence and impatience, no doubt because they assumed that I must be a welfare case (and they assumed that folks on welfare can/should be treated disrespectfully). And there was the continued shock and awe at my lack of medical history, because overweight people must, must be unhealthy.

Then there was the somewhat humiliating conversation I had to have in order to make arrangements for my care: “Dr., I need you to nail down a date for the surgery. I am single and childless. There is no one to take care of me at my house. A family member will need to come, and my closest lives thousands of miles away.” I must have had this conversation at least five times, during my first 3 day hospital stay. It seemed unfathomable to these folks that there was no one to take care of me, I mean with the 15 babies that I must be mothering. <side eye>

When I made it to that spa, three weeks later, I was definitely in need of a healing. I had come to escape the shit in my life that I can’t control. The very singleness that my masseuse chose to highlight is a singleness of which I’m intimately aware, because on the daily it means that when I want to be touched and to be held, I can’t just snap my fingers and make it happen. Like I said to my mother, after she got on an emergency flight to come take care of me, I wish I were having all the sex these doctors think I’m having, given their insistence on my being pregnant.  I’m pretty sure Mommy didn’t wanna know all that, but #blameitontheanesthesia.

I lay on that table, submitting to a needed body service, in part to undo the spiritual injuries that I experienced from all the folks who had to touch my body in order to make it well again.

I went to the spa, to treat myself, to be in community. And I agreed to that body scrub because I needed to reaffirm that whatever my weight struggles may be, my body is worthy of loving care and attention. And I learned while there, that even if I never pay for the service again, if I ever want a body scrub like that, I cannot do it by myself. It is physically impossible. We (whoever your we is) need each other.

It was therefore pretty difficult to discover that the psychic price of letting someone access my body – and I’m speaking both of the masseuse and the medical professionals—is that their assessments of me would center on my lack of romantic relationship and my overweight body.

What I owe to myself is the reminder that I am much, much more than what I am not.

So in that immediate moment, what I had (and have) was a community of fierce sister scholar homegirls that I could spend a day at the spa with, friends who took care of me while I was sick and were still taking care of me on our spa day as I was still recovering, and friends who I could literally and figuratively shed it all with.

What I long for, for myself, and for all who need it is touch that is not facilitated by capitalism. Touch that, in its demand for our vulnerability, our giving of our whole selves, does not exact from us psychic violence. Touch that is healing, and intimate, and loving, without the necessity of being sexual. And yet, access to safe, healthy sexual touch, when we want it. 

However uncomfortable a truth it may be, getting naked (with your friends or your sex partners) is very often a precursor to being well.

Healing for Black women, and women of color, who are continually subjected to injury, physical, emotional, psychic, is not an event, nor even merely a process. It is a lifestyle — a total and active commitment to being well. And regular touch must be a part of it.

Even so,  I’m still not a hugger. And I still require folks to ask permission before they proceed into my personal space. But lasting the whole day at the naked spa has got to count for something.

Image from Essence.com

crunktastic

30 thoughts on “Taking It All Off: Black Women, Nudity, and the Politics of Touch

  1. Thank you, Crunklife, for sharing your injurious-yet-triumphant experience within the medical/wellness realm—–I & my sisterfriends have experienced similar BS when seeking care (medical or spa). Although my love language involves hugs, it also involves empathetic/humanistic verbal communication. Viva la Crunk Feminist Collective!

  2. There is so much on point in this commentary I don’t know where to begin after saying thank you for your transparency. You have my loving compassion for what you have had to endure, and I hope that there was far more healing than injury that day and in your future. Breaking the silence about these experiences sure is powerful step in that direction and yet not small feat. You look absolutely radiant in that photograph, and it was an affirming sight after reading something that was so painfully honest.

    • Thank you, Sofia! Continuing to send you love and light on your healing journey.

  3. Well, I feel honored, then, because I remember you letting me hug you at least once! ;-)

    I have found that I do better with accepting massage and other forms of touch that has a spiritual component to it, when it is along the lines of a healing ministry. When it is given in that form, I’m more than happy to compensate the person financially, because I see it as my way of helping support their ministry. But otherwise, it takes me a very long time to ease into that sort of stuff.

    I’m not sure I’ve told you thank you for your honest sharing, here and when we talk in person. You have helped me think differently, and I am so grateful for your presence. Blessings!

  4. That spa deserves a complaint. The person should *not* be saying that to you. It’s completely inappropriate: a person doing a job of body work should not be offering a single criticism of anyone’s body she’s working on. (Not that anyone else should either.) She shouldn’t even be assuming that singleness is something negative (whatever your own feelings about it).

    • Seconding this. Seriously, that’s something you shouldn’t even say to friends, let alone a paying customer. And yeah, there is not a damn thing wrong with being single and childless either.

    • i’m honestly wondering if it’s a cultural thing. she mentions that these were asian women, and i know, from experience and talk at least, that many asian cultures are much more blunt about these things than westerners expect. traveling in china, strangers would regularly recommend i not eat all my fried rice, or do more exercises (they would recommend specific ones for my fattest parts). they would even grab my arm flab and pinch. it hurt my feelings immensely, but to them it seemed like just a fact of life, and not unfriendly. and their standards seemed much stricter, too. i’m average for a westerner, but to them i seemed big.

      don’t get me wrong. they should still buzz off. but they might be coming from a framework where these things aren’t quite as jaw dropping as they seem to some of us.

  5. I loved, loved, loved, this blog post! I thought it particularly interesting the note you bought up about medical professional and their biases toward heavier people. We already know that the media shoves the image of the perfect woman down everyone’s throat – long hair, tall and seemingly malnourished. Well as a young strong woman I didn’t let those images get to me. I was fine within myself. It was not until I had a checkup at 14yrs before going to high school and my doctor told me I needed to lose weight that I began to doubt my beauty. The doctor didn’t ask if I was going through a growth spurt or if my family were typically larger – she just saw that I had gained 10lbs since my last check up a year ago. Of course, the doctor didn’t offer any advice for how to go about losing weight. She just dropped this on me, like a bomb. So all of a sudden the Yoplait commercials and fashion magazines had professional backing from my personal doctor as to what I was supposed to be. Would you guess I developed an eating disorder?
    Side note: (It’s kind of crumby that NO ONE ever asks an overweight person about eating disorders. It’s assumed the only eating disorder a large person has is compulsive eating disorder. And no one asks black people either. In our community I’ve learned anorexia and bulimia were thought to be “white” ailments, that what I was going through was something else. This ignorance and denial will only make problems worse in our community)
    A known side effect of anorexia is depression which makes it all the more difficult to battle because you’re constantly depressed about how you look. However, I managed to work my way out of this mental pit, with time and the help of God. I had no help at all from family or friends because they could not even acknowledge what was happening. Like the denouncement of black people having eating disorders my close family and friends also ignored the fact that we’re (black people) vulnerable of mental disorders like depression, as well. Ever since I worked out my self-loathing issues I’ve been overweight more so now than before – I screwed up my metabolism by not eating and over exercising. Of course till this day when I see a doctor they still say the same thing – you need to lose weight; with no need to follow up with advice, suggestions, or get to know ones actual personal history.
    I’m sorry you had to go through either of those emotionally traumatic events and hope you know you have support and love from your sistas.

    • I’ve had doctors dismiss my eating disorder(s), one even saying treating my bulimia was irrelevant and I should have been going for gastric bypass instead of therapy. Not only do doctors neglect EDs or don’t bother asking larger patients about symptoms, but a doctor (or, heck, person in general) will quickly advise that a brand new person whom they’ve never seen before lose weight. I recently lost a large amount of weight (combination of medical issues) but anyone new I meet or seek medical help from will see me as another fatty who’s a few lbs away from an obese BMI and will proceed with a weight loss lecture accordingly. They wouldn’t know that in fact that I lost 50 lbs in less than 5 months and physically have trouble eating. And sharing the whole thing would probably only get me positive reinforcement, because thinner is always a good outcome regardless of the path.

      I have trouble talking myself through spa experiences that involve nudity, and even more trouble being exposed around people I know. I take some solace in knowing that spa employees who comment on my weight are often trying to sell me some additional service.

  6. oh beloved brave one! sending you healing and blessings for your courage in the daily struggle that we woc go through… and sending you wishes for safe touches whenever you need them.

  7. This post really resonated with me, thank you for sharing. As an Indigenous woman who is single and childless, where do I access safe touch? Where do I find touch that inflicts neither physical nor emotional harm? Frankly, the only place I’ve found it so far is a stuffed bear that I sleep with, and that is clearly not sufficient…..

    • i wonder if a pet would be helpful? it might not meet all your needs, but i know they can be amazing friends, and even family.

  8. This is such an eloquent, brave and personal post – you write beautifully! I love the way you have spoken to the complexities of intimacy and touch.
    I also, as a young, white woman newly introduced to this collective would like to say that ‘Misogynoir’ is the most fantastic word I have seen for a long time.
    And I think you look absolutely gorgeous in that photograph.

    • Many thanks! That is not me in the photo, btw. But that woman is beautiful. And yes, I love the word “misogynoir.” CF Moya coined it.

  9. so i read your write up yesterday and loved it until you came to the injury part. after that everything i read… felt not so great. i remember thinking but why are you taking it like this? the masseuse in her own way caring for you. i remember thinking sister, have you stopped to think about where this woman comes from? in many cultures expressing things like that.. like you should lose weight or you should get married is often an asking after… like a hey if you have a problem with this, then you should do something about it. i remember speaking to you and saying … can’t you hear what she’s saying as something coming out of her concern?

    i also remember feeling something uneasy about that reaction of mine.

    so i went to sleep and as i was having my chai this morning you came back to mind. the way you wrote the word injury stuck out at me. and i went after that thought and it lead me to a sort of opening.

    i thought about the ways i have been inappropriately touched and as i continue my healing and analyzing work on all that… i realized… this is the way i have reacted to the invasions on my body. as a child going through that stuff, my mind and body found a way to quickly make sense of what is going on. i had to because i don’t know else i would have survived knowing the harm was coming from my own family… i needed them you know?

    anyway the point it is…my reaction to your reaction to the masseuse (through that opening) i saw once again.. how these mechanisms we develop to protect ourselves can turn into oppressions.

    i realize how important is like you did..to name what doesn’t feel good, to stand with it, take the support of community and find a way to let our own light seep through these oppressions to free ourselves.

    thank you so much for sharing! :o )

  10. What a stupid, racist fool. If you had been a White/non-Black woman, the idiot never would have said that to you. This is exactly why people can miss me with that “women of color” nonsense. For a lot of them are just as racist against Black WOMEN/GIRLS as the White ones!

    Sorry you had to go throught that. Apparently Black women are the only people in the world who do not deserve respect as customers paying their hard-earned darn money for a product or service. SMDH.

    • it may have been racial double standards, but some of it may also have been overbearing, nosy auntie-ism. in some communities, asian women def pull this stuff with other asian women who are not relatives (fat policing, why aren’t you married, blah blah). not fun :/

  11. Thank you for writing this. It helped free my mind! I feel like every doctor/medical professional/body care worker needs to become versed in perspectives like yours.

  12. Pingback: Lovely Links: 5/25/12

  13. Pingback: whatnot. « Amazing Things

  14. thank you for sharing this. as a future physician, and one who is interested in osteopathic manual medicine (similar to bodywork) in particular, i find it humbling and essential to always consider that, as much as i am trying to bring healing to someone, to be mindful i am not also introducing injury. since we students practice on each other, it’s so easy to lose track of the significance and vulnerability of entrusting one’s body to the attention/scrutiny/care of others. thank you for teasing that apart. i’m sorry you had to experience it in such negative ways, but am glad that you are seeking healing in all the realms of wellness.

  15. Pingback: Sunday Morning Medicine | Nursing Clio

  16. Pingback: GLG Weekly Roundup « girls like giants

  17. Pingback: Injury | joyce's blog

Support the CFC! Donate Today!

Thank you to our Generous Supporters!

Email us at crunkfeminists@gmail.com to find out how you can become a supporter.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 2,705 other subscribers

Follow me on Twitter

Blog Topics