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.