This is my new favorite word.
“Skinship” is a Japanese word (sukinshippu?) that is used to describe how Westerners are physical in their interactions with each other, at least in comparison with Japanese culture. I was introduced to this word by a woman who lived in Japan for a few years and who keeps in close contact with many of the people she met there. (If any of you Awesome Readers are familiar with “skinship,” feel free to leave a comment telling me all about it.) This word expresses a correlation between friendship and skin-to-skin contact. It is an adjective (as far as I understand), as in “You Americans are so skinship.”
Since I was introduced to this word by a woman I know from church, of course we discussed this word in terms of our beliefs. Many of our ordinances and much of ritual involves not only corporeality, but shared corporeality. When someone is given a blessing, hands are placed on that person’s head. When someone is baptized, they are held in a sort of formal embrace as they are buried in the water and then lifted out. The sacrament, our central, weekly ordinance, involves taking the symbol of Christ’s body inside our own. The skinship element of our ritual points to the kind of relationship we seek with Christ. I want an intensely intimate relationship with God. I don’t want to give him the “what’s up” nod in passing. I don’t want to shake hands, once, firmly. Like Nephi, I want to be “encircled about eternally in the arms of his love” (2 Nephi 1:15). I want to be “skinship” with Christ.
I think this extends to the way we view each other. In America, our racism is basically focused on skin color. People in other places manage to create and reify divisons amongst themselves in other ways (Northern Ireland comes to mind, where racism is both an issue of who your ancestors were as well as what you believe), but we’re pretty straightforward here. Historically, we’ve decided that white=good and dark=bad, and we’ve placed human beings along that continuum. I’m merely being descriptive here. The notion of “skinship,” though, perhaps combined with my Christianity, reminds me that we should love each other not regardless of our skin, or in spite of our skin, but including our skin. Katie Gibson has talked a lot on her blog about being seen, and I’m so glad she has. But now that I know about this new word, I feel like it’s just as important to be touched, to be a physical being in a physical reality with other physical beings. Studies have shown that skin-to-skin contact between a newborn baby and its mother has a measurably soothing effect on the child. Sometimes it’s nice to be jostled on the bus, to feel the push of a crowd, to have someone tap you on the shoulder. Even when people are impolite– an accidental bump through a doorway– touch reminds us that we are not alone. “Hello,” a nudge says. “I am a human being. I see you are a human being as well. Would you kindly take your turn at the front of the line so we can all get out of here sooner?” Touch just makes the universe smaller, more intimate, and less frightening.
I understand that some people are less physically demonstrative than others. I know that skinship is not necessarily a virtue. But I know myself well enough by now to know that I am so skinship, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. I think Walt Whitman would approve. Now, who wants a hug?