I JUST LIKE YOU, WITH MY BODY: How Much Friendly Physical Affection Is Too Much?

Am I a huge creeper for wanting to hold my friends' hands all the time?

Jun 18, 2013 at 1:00pm | Leave a comment

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Betty was scared of the fireworks outside, so we got in some quality couch-spooning.

Last Friday, I'd been having a rough time. Work was challenging, the dude I'd been seeing had officially left the country, and I was on day 5 of what is apparently going to be a period that never ends. I couldn't focus on a book long enough to read, and even staring at Teen Wolf gifs on Tumblr was only making me grumpy. 

I'd resigned myself to eating an angry salad with my hands and going to sleep inexplicably furious when my housemate Lex sat down next to me. "Movie?" she suggested.

"Whatever," I snapped, feeling like I was all teeth.

"Okay," she said mildly, switching on something mindless. We sat there in silence for a minute. Finally, I sighed, toppling sideways into her lap.

"Will you scratch my head?" I mumbled, and she grinned, petting the side of my face and then letting me zone out for the next 45 minutes.

It was bliss.

Now, Lex and I aren't friends-who-make-out. We're not even friends-who-flirt. We're close, but our relationship is strictly platonic, to the point where I reflexively apologize when she runs into me during my early-morning mostly-naked coffee searches. But having her touch me in a friendly way for an extended period of time felt like fucking heaven.

I never used to think this was that odd. My parents, particularly my mom, have never been stingy with physical affection, so I grew up thinking it was natural to go up to people you loved and demand hugs from them. 

And going to an all-girls' high school didn't exactly clear things up. Like I've written about before, it was not uncommon in my high school to spend the entirety of one's lunch break casually piling on one's friends, whether to show solidarity in the aftermath of a History test or to express enthusiasm with regard to an anime episode. It was just a thing we all did with each other, like bringing brownies on birthdays and getting way too into dance movies. My (straight) best friend from high school still automatically grabs for my hand whenever we're walking next to each other on the street.

Maybe that's what happens when young women feel comfortable with each other in a safe environment; I don't know. Regardless, somewhere right around puberty, I imprinted on the idea that the best way to show people you love them is to put your chin on their shoulder and make jungle-bird noises into their ear.

So I forget, sometimes, that other people don't necessarily feel the same way. Recently, I told my friend El, "You know, I'm glad I can ask you to come hug my head when I'm feeling miserable. Some people are weirdly anti-touching."

"Um," El said carefully, patting me on the shoulder. "I don't think that they're the weird ones."

She was right, naturally. Contrary to popular belief about California, the majority of my friends here aren't exactly touchy-feely hippy-dippy types. They hug friends hello, but it's polite and firm, like a full-body handshake.

Meanwhile, my first instinct when I like someone is to try to link pinkies with them, or lean into their entire side like one of those big, dumb dogs that tries to herd you into small children. I often don't even realize I'm doing it until the person in question tries to move away and I fall over.

I don't particularly like hugging complete strangers, but the time between me meeting people and deciding I'm comfortable with happily starfishing over them is absurdly short compared with most of the people I've met as an adult.

My problem, I think, is that I actually feel wilty when I haven't touched someone in a while. Even if I've been dating someone, it's usually not enough; if I don't have an hour a week or so to casually hook ankles with a friend, I start getting twitchy and sad. 

I'm like an attention-starved cat or something; I want to put my face all over everyone I love in the most platonic way possible. Otherwise our interactions feel strangely formal. 

I genuinely don't want to make people uncomfortable, though, so I tend to let them make the first move when it comes to physical affection. That means I've had periods of my life where no one touches me for longer than ten seconds at a time. Inevitably, those times suck

Because little touches are the way that I express appreciation for someone's company, there's a tiny part of me that assumes that they must feel the same way. Some of my friends just aren't very handsy, and I find myself worrying that they don't like me that much.

I realize this is completely absurd -- "You don't want to link elbows with me? We might as well be strangers on a train!" -- but touching is also the easiest way I have of showing people I love them. Why express verbal appreciation for someone's talents or charisma, after all, when you can grab them at the elbow in greeting?

For now, this is actually working okay. I have a few friends who are pretty touchy-feely themselves, so I don't start irrationally fearing that everyone hates my guts. However, I'm recognizing now that I rarely see older adults expressing fondness in this way, and that worries me.

Is demanding and expressing platonic physical affection something people grow out of, or only do with their primary romantic partners? Am I going to end up reviving my OKCupid account purely so a stranger can wind my hair through their fingers and tell me I'm nice?

Or is this a habit I need to kick, stat, before I start getting a reputation as a sad lady who makes piles out of clean laundry and leg shavings to simulate the warmth of other humans? (Just kidding, I don't shave my legs often enough for that.)

Lucky for you, Kate cannot try to flop on you over Twitter: @katchatters