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When you brush past someone in a crowded restaurant or accidentally nudge a person in a hallway or on an elevator, you say “I’m sorry” or “Pardon me” because, in American culture, their private space has been violated. The fact that this split second of harmless, casual social physical contact is considered a transgression significant enough to require an apology—no matter how perfunctory—reveals that something truly is wrong with life in the big city.
I am a skin therapist, and 2006 marks my third decade in the profession. For me, the past 30 years have been jampacked with learning, and I believe that the most important professional quality for any skin care professional should be a commitment to gathering knowledge. Throughout my education, I have been fortunate enough to learn about a myriad of products, techniques and technologies—everything from the use of nightingale droppings to the role of galvanic current in skin care. During this lifetime of learning, one thing never has been clearer than it is now: Skin care is all about touch and human hands.
Go back to that crowded elevator, where you tuck in your feet, hips, elbows and shoulders to prevent the slightest incidental contact with fellow travelers, and it is clear that touch has become demonized in our society. The roots of this mistrust of the body reach back to America’s Puritan past and are combined with modern-day xenophobia—the fear of foreign things. Commonly, people fear the unknown.
Undeniably, these are uncertain, alienated times during which it would make sense to seek solace and comfort in humanity. Instead, you retreat into your own isolated, insular world where social touching virtually is eliminated—what pop culture commentator Faith Popcorn called “cocooning” in the early 1990s.
Today, teachers shrink from touching their students, fearful even of applying sunscreen to their faces before a field trip. Co-workers hesitate to offer a gentle hug or pat on the shoulder to a colleague, dreading the threat of sexual harassment charges.