It was well-known throughout middle and high school that I did not enjoy hugging. I played it off as being mean or being a misanthrope so that people would catch the hint. Don’t touch me. I don’t like it and there’s never a reason I could be given that would justify the physical contact of strangers.
My real reason for not enjoying the sweet embrace of strangers was that I felt uncomfortable with people feeling entitled to my body, my space, my time and, most importantly, my happiness. That seems like an odd jump to make whenever people just want to give a quick squeeze. However, when you grow up expecting the touch of a rando at every turn, you grow cautious.
This conditioning goes way back in many of our lives but runs a different pathway in the life of Black children. Kids are expected to hug and kiss and welcome everyone with open arms. At the same time, they’re expected to avoid strangers. Black children, at least in my context of Southern American life, are truly held accountable for respecting their elders, often considered anyone around twenty years their senior or more. So to deny the embrace of a random man who is justified as my twice removed uncle is a whooping waiting to happen. We were required to love those we didn’t know out of respect. My active resistance to this in later years led to problems within my household. Yet I carried this idea outside of the home. If I don’t know you, why do you feel entitled to my space and time?
This was especially apparent in school. Constantly, as the larger and Blacker girl to my schoolmate counterparts, I was referred to as a bodyguard and as a mother and as a defender. This meant that random people, friends or not, would expect me to be protective and polite and happy to do so. One person I knew would often go so far as to pick fights with others while we hung out and then direct them to me to deal with the issue. I never fought anyone but my mere presence was, at times, enough to scare people off.
Why was it my job to take care of this (predominantly white) group of friends? Was I not the same age? Was I not exhibiting conventional desires and needs like everyone else? This included forcing crushes over ugly little boys, pretending to enjoy horrible music and allowing my aunts to coat my face in makeup before eighth grade prom. I was doing my best to fit in, yet somehow I ended up being seen as the giant cuddly guardian.
So to combat this view, I turned cold. I convinced everyone that I never cried and hated doing so. I emphasized that blue was my favorite color and that I wasn’t “girly,” as I proclaimed that I hated pink. I decided to be as “masculine” as possible to shake this mammy idea. Yet, that did nothing but turn me into an angry Black woman – who definitely needed a hug. Instead of being seen as loveable, I was now too tomboyish and lacking of femininity, another trait often assigned to Black women who need some form of “softening.”
Realizing I couldn’t win the battle of regaining my own personal bubble, I just about gave up giving off any façade in my senior year of high school. I was as much of myself as I could possibly be and by then I had the right reputation for not wanting to be touched. I managed to graduate without too much hugging hassle. This then lead to people assuming that because of this mannerism: I didn’t want friends. As much as I tried to shake it, it also managed to swing its way into college.
Even now, I hesitate to touch people. While I’ve made sure to be careful and have attempted to surround myself with better people who genuinely like me for me, I’ve still found myself faltering. During the first-year rush to find the inseparable crew™, I missed the window of time that was required to forge those everlasting friendships. I wasn’t loveable enough nor did I show enough affection to those I’d just met.
This growth that I’ve experienced now, however, has allowed me to put a finger on why some friendships may crumble if it’s revealed that I’m not a jolly “bring it in” person. It all seems to stem from the fact that I’ve never truly embraced the idea of being a nurturing mother figure, and that just won’t cut it for some people. When there’s a history of people feeling like you owe them something simply based on your presence, this is a reality you can never truly escape. Now, towards the end of sophomore year, I’ve managed to secure friendships with those who understand that there are many ways to express the joy of being around someone that doesn’t involve invading their personal space. It ranges from simply asking if they can touch me to cracking jokes every time we see each other. This experience solidifies the fact that healthy friendships can and will exist when people respect the space of others.