Everyone is aware of the obesity epidemic in this country, a problem composed of many factors beyond our easily available food and sedentary lifestyles. A common culprit undermining weight-loss efforts is emotional eating. As a life-long veteran of the battle of the bulge, I have first-hand experience of responding to stimuli other than physical hunger by popping something delicious into my mouth.
Another topic on the sociologists radar is the issue of our increasingly fractured and isolating culture. The supportive extended family and close-knit communities of the past are disappearing. People are responding to the loneliness by sharing their most intimate thoughts and actions with their closet 100 or so friends on social media sites and by interacting in person with casual hook-ups and manipulative behaviors.
At one time it was not unusual to see schoolgirls walking along holding hands and boys with their arms slung over each others’ shoulders in friendship. The sexual identity of these children never came into question. In today’s hyper-sexualized atmosphere, our young people are sensitized at a very early age to the potential sexual overtones of even the most innocently intended touch, making them wary of casual physical contact, while their teachers are warned to keep “hands off” their students. It is possible for our children to go all day long without being touched, except by their immediate family.
Could the issues of obesity and isolation be connected?
I first heard the term “skin hunger” many years ago in the context of elderly people living alone. Today, people of all ages can go for days without experiencing affectionate, non-sexual skin-to-skin contact.
I’ve known times in my life when days passed without a caress of any kind. That was when my appetite was the greatest. I couldn’t seem to satisfy my gnawing hunger. Most of us have experienced a craving for a particular food that couldn’t be immediately gratified. We learned, to our dismay, that eating a substitute didn’t stop the craving. In some instances it made it worse.
Skin hunger, like an unmet emotional need, can lead us to try to assuage our craving with food. Food is a poor substitute for the physical affection we need. I’m not talking about sex. Although some people do try to substitute sexual activity for affection, wives often complain that the only time their husband touches them is during sex. Sexual touching is just not the same and it does not fill every need.
If our children were giving and receiving more non-sexual physical affection, would we have less obesity? Less promiscuity?
While it may not be possible to reverse the sexualization of our society, we can each be aware of the basic human need for frequent physical touch. This is true of our family, our friends, and ourselves.
In the absence of an extended family, a church family is the next-best place to practice innocent touch. In the sanctuary, the original safe space, we have the opportunity to hold hands and give hugs without fear of misunderstanding or offense.
This week, hug your family, give a friend a pat on the back, make a point to feed someone’s skin hunger. Like love, a hug is the gift that gives back to you.