Jul. 20th, 2009

On hugging

Jul. 20th, 2009 02:52 pm
karlht: (Default)
The discussion on hugging and personal space this morning on b.org caused me to do some fairly serious thinking about a subject that has come up quite a few times in my life, all the way from early adolescence through the present time:

Why am I so attached to the act of hugging, even in the face of the social perils (and occasional disapprobation) that it brings in its wake?

Background first. My immediate family-by-birth are not terribly physically demonstrative -- not precisely repressed, but not given to displays of affectionate enthusiasm, either. I am clearly an outlier in that context, and it's been noticed and remarked upon throughout my life. I am an only child, and while I did not lack for affection growing up, I did feel that I was 'snugglier' than most of the adults around me were quite comfortable with. I was not, as far as I know, prematurely sexualised -- I was not looking for erotic gratification, but simple closeness, and an expression of something more than simple affection ... call it joyful enthusiasm. I am fairly certain that this behaviour read as developing-sexuality to most of the adults around me, and held all of the squicks and 'danger-signs' associated with teaching an adolescent which forms of expression are acceptable and which are not. I know that it made several adults in my extended family curious, if not outright uncomfortable, and they said things to my mother which she passed on to me. She was generally as gentle as she could be about it, but I still vividly remember the sensation of rejection, especially from family. But my mother explained that it was important to take other people's comfort into account, as well, and I did my best to not offend anyone.

With my peers, I was an outlier in a different way. I tried to smooch my next-door neighbour when I was five (she was six), as little boys will do, and she whapped me with her jacket and caught my lip on the zipper, quite accidentally. She was very apologetic, but quite firm in her resolve not to be smooched. And when we became good friends a few years later, we did not engage in rough-housing or much other play that involved physical contact. When I was introduced to the playground 'chasing and kissing game' at age eight, I didn't see the point of running away, really. I wasn't very good at running (the asthma was a bit limiting), and I didn't see the point in trying to smooch someone who didn't want to be smooched, having internalised that first lesson entirely.

I got through elementary school (ages 5 to 12 for non-North American folks) with the usual number of deeply-felt childhood crushes, both on my peers and on the adults around me. I got teased about a number of them, but the adult recipients were generally very sensitive about respecting my dignity. There was one incident (in grade 6 - I was 11) in which I came home crying after a teacher had teased me about having a crush on a classmate, and my mother had a very simple suggestion: Tell the teacher that she had hurt your feelings. It was stunning in its simplicity, and I had profound doubts that it would do any good. But when it happened again, I walked up to the teacher's desk and asked to have a word with her. Doing my best to hold back tears, I told her that the teasing hurt my feelings, and asked her how she would feel if she liked someone and I made fun of her for it? And a truly amazing thing happened. She took me seriously, and apologised to me. Not teacher to student, but human being to human being. And a whole raft of troubles that I had been having that year got a whole lot easier. When I went home and told my mother about it, she held me in her arms while I cried with relief.

What does that have to do with hugging? Not so much on the surface -- but I was taught from an early age to express myself when I was hurt, rather than to shut down -- and 'boys don't cry' was something I just completely didn't understand. When someone was crying, you didn't ever /make fun/ of them, you did what you could to help, no matter whether they were male or female, adult or child.

And from that day to this, that's what I associate the feeling of a genuine, heartfelt hug with -- keeping each other safe and comforted in a world that too often wants to make fun of us for being who we are. And if I can keep that in balance with the knowledge that not everyone interprets hugs in the same way, and pay enough attention to other people's sensitivities and preferences that I don't offer comfort where it's not wanted/needed, I think I may be able to do my small part to make the world a better place.

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