Merry Christmas. Perhaps you’re gathering around the tree. Or perhaps, like me a few years ago, you are reclining in a medical office, discovering the true goodness of a dentist (thank you, Doctors Lowenberg, Lituchy, and Kantor) willing to fix a cracked tooth on this fine morning. Ho ho ho!
Last December, December 31 to be exact—because these issues seem to arise only on the biggest holidays of the year—I had to have an emergency root canal. It was the height of the pandemic, and I had been alone for more weeks than I could count. This didn’t bother me a bit, the aloneness. I’d work out, work, read, cook an elaborate dinner for one, watch something, and read some more. Maybe, under these particular circumstances, people who don’t need people are the luckiest people in the world.
But I did need a dentist. So I walked to the dentist’s office, dodging the tumbleweed on Fifth Avenue and readying myself for the pain. Before the 11 shots of Novocain, before the nerve-rattling whirr of the drill, the dentist, explaining the procedure, touched my arm so gently that tears sprang to my eyes. I was entirely unprepared for the depth of tenderness in that small, kind touch.
Apparently, without even noticing it, I was touch-starved. Touch deprivation, skin hunger, touch starvation, whatever you call it: it’s a real medical condition that became a side effect during life in the time of the coronavirus.
I’m not talking about sexual touch, but about the platonic interaction we lost as we isolated and Zoomed and elbow-bumped. I definitely missed my partner, who lives outside of D.C. and who did marathon drives, no rest stops, to visit. And I missed my sweet adult sons, tousling their hair, kissing their prickly cheeks, receiving their spine-cracking hugs. But I also really missed my manicurist.
Beauty treatments seem designed to refine and control all the straggly, wayward, ragged bits, but their real power may lie in the way they deliver platonic, restorative touch. Massage is the obvious example. But less overt experiences, a head rub during a salon shampoo, a foot kneading during a pedicure, can be nearly as therapeutic. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a truly transformative facial—I look the same, sometimes worse, after many—but the soft caresses and taps of skilled fingers on forehead and cheekbones are partly why I and so many others return again and again. It’s attention, it’s relaxation, and, mostly, it’s touch.
Touch deprivation, skin hunger, touch starvation, whatever you call it: it’s a real medical condition that became a side effect during life in the time of the coronavirus.
And yet, there were no facials or massages during the height of the pandemic. Manicure salons were particularly late to reopen, especially after California governor Gavin Newsom claimed last year that the first community spread of the virus in the state originated in a nail salon.
During those long months of the pandemic’s first wave, as we tried clumsily to color our own hair and paint our nails with our non-dominant hand, we realized what poor substitutes many at-home beauty treatments were, and not just because of our lack of skills. Many of us were deprived of touch, and some were truly lonely.
One study, conducted in the U.K.—home to a culture notoriously averse to casual physical interaction—discovered that even brief physical contact can reduce people’s feelings of loneliness and lower their heart rates. The researchers found relief lay in just a light rub on the back of the hands, which sounds like one step of a manicure. That may be what compelled me to strap on a mask and visit Josephine Allen, the most adept of manicurists, as soon as I was fully vaccinated. It was like returning to civilization, coming home.
Manicures and pedicures have a surprisingly meaningful effect on the giver and the receiver. In working on The Noonday Demon, his book about depression, Andrew Solomon traveled to Cambodia to meet survivors of the Khmer Rouge atrocities in an effort to understand what happens when an entire population is subjected to profound trauma. One of the survivors had discovered a way to help other women victims who were incapacitated by depression. She taught them to speak about their suffering, to learn to work, and to perform manicures and pedicures on each other. Solomon had to suppress his urge to laugh when he heard this, because it seemed so preposterous.
The soft caresses and taps of skilled fingers on forehead and cheekbones are partly why I and so many others return again and again. It’s attention, it’s relaxation, and, mostly, it’s touch.
But the woman explained that these survivors had lost the ability to trust, to look each other in the eye, and to indulge in even the smallest aspects of personal vanity. The nail care allowed them to regard and touch each other in both intimate and impersonal ways. During a live recording of The Moth Radio Hour, Solomon recalled the woman explaining, “They would touch each other’s fingers, they would touch each other’s toes … and because they felt so happy about the fact that they were, for a moment, feeling a little bit beautiful again, they would begin to laugh together.” In his book, Solomon writes, “By the end of it all, they have learned how to make friends, so that they will never have to be so lonely and so alone again.”
Most of us will never know suffering that immense. Still, we have been through something that has changed our lives, filling us with a constant, simmering dread. What we feared most was death and disease, it’s true, but we also feared touch, and we protected ourselves by recoiling from the hugs, handshakes, and arm pats that once made us feel connected.
We’ve been touch-starved, and our skin is hungry to return to something like normalcy, something like life.
Linda Wells spent 25 years as Allure magazine’s founding editor in chief, authored Confessions of a Beauty Editor, served as Revlon’s chief creative officer, and launched the beauty brand Flesh