Touch,the forgotten hunger: The role of touch in eating
Touch, such as bonding and comfort between parent and child, is the earliest form of communication. The caregiver’s touch -secure holding, hugging and consistent caressing-, is essential for the child to form a felt sense of the body.
An interesting empirical study of the relationship between the body image and the experience of touch was done by Gupta and Schork (1995, 2006). They observed a direct relationship between current body image problems and the individuals’ perception of a lack of tactile nurturing such as hugging and cuddling. In other words, there is an inverse relationship between touch deprivation and high scores on the Drive for Thinness scale.
What role might touch play in a mindful eating training? During many years of offering mindful eating exercises, I’ve noticed that simply touching the food with awareness offers many insights. However, the felt sense of sensitive fingertips, lips or palate touching food with awareness is often neglected in daily life. In general, we have a strong tendency to see food and bite it as quickly as possible. The focus of attention lies mostly on what the eyes and the taste buds perceive.
In the more than 500 raisin exercises I’ve done, I’ve becoming aware that when food touches the body it has been one of the most profound experiences for participants.
Eating becomes a sensual act when the surface of a food is delicately caressed with the fingertips, circled on the lips and then gently placed in the mouth to explore how the texture might feel. When eating is slowed down it may become a sensual and intimate activity which gives pleasure and joy, but which can also be very frightening for some people. There are many similarities between eating and sexual intimacy when we take something from the external world into our bodies.
Gupta and Schork noted that their findings support the importance of tactile nurturance in the development of body image, especially among women. As a mindful eating teacher I believe it is extremely important to connect with the body and our physical sensations in relation to food. In general, most participants in mindful eating programs experience or have experienced ‘touch deprivation’, both during childhood and in their current lives. Eating with ‘tactile awareness’ can reveal these hidden needs.
This specific touch-focused mindful eating practice offers insights into unbalanced eating habits which are sometimes driven by the desire for connection and intimate touch. Besides the 8 Hunger (ear hunger included) I would propose a ninth hunger: ‘touch or tactile hunger’. From the smooth, melting texture of chocolate to a jar of body cream with an image of soft peaches on the label, are metaphors for how we want to be touched: from the surface of our skin to the depth of our heart.
The energy of mindfulness encourages self-care and to find alternative soothing activities to fulfill our human needs for tactile nurturing and the freedom to choose the best option for each moment.
How do you nourish your touch hunger? What are your professional experiences with touch deprivation?
Reference: Gupta, M. A. and Schork, N. J. (1995), Touch deprivation has an adverse effect on body image: Some preliminary observations. Int. J. Eat. Disord., 17: 185–189.
By Caroline Baerten, Belgium