I am an 87-year-old woman. I live alone. And have done for over 50 years. Nothing unusual about that. Around half of women over 75 in Britain live on their own. I think about myself as an independent spirit with a full and interesting life. I have a fun late onset career as a performer and writer, wonderful friends, a comfortable income. But I am suffering from a chronic condition. I have skin hunger. I just can’t remember the last time someone touched me.
Men meet me and they say: “Isn’t she cute? Isn’t she wonderful?
Isn’t she clever?” But they never say: “Shall we get naked?”
What is skin hunger?
Skin hunger, also known as touch starvation, is a known condition in which we yearn for the actual touch of another person. Without it, people can become depressed, stressed and anxious, which in turn can lead to physical effects such as disturbed sleep, higher risk of infections and other medical conditions.
What skin hunger means to me
I ache for that connection that happens when two people become one. I’m not talking about sex necessarily. I am not even talking about love. I am talking about a need for human closeness that happens only when you are touched by someone you care about. Is it so little to ask? But I am not going to get that wish. I can’t just grab someone and say, “Hey! Would you mind stripping off? I need to feel your skin next to mine.”
It’s hard for women to ask to be touched
It just isn’t done. Society is against me. The very lessons women learn from the moment we are born have taught me that I am not supposed to want, or need, closeness at my ancient age. Men meet me and they say: “Isn’t she cute? Isn’t she wonderful? Isn’t she clever?” But they never say: “Shall we get naked?”
As any women in later life will tell you, little by little, you stop being seen as a sentient being who could have once run a small company or taught thousands of children how to read, but who slowly becomes invisible and therefore incapable. It all happened so gradually, I didn’t see it coming. I became aware that people were standing up for me on the bus, trying to help me crossroads (which I didn’t want to cross). Talking a bit louder to be sure I heard them.
Lockdown has highlighted skin hunger for us all
If the social distancing and no-contact rules of lockdown have done anything, they have given the rest of the population a sense of the lives many older women have been living for years — decades even. True, when they were allowed, friends will take my hand on a walk, or put their arm around me at dinner and readily peck me on the cheek. And that’s nice, but it doesn’t quite hit the mark. I got a dog and a cat. I hugged them and they licked my face. But what I was caressing wasn’t skin. It was fur.
Touch…not necessarily sex
Now don’t get me wrong. I am not a dirty old lady obsessed with sex. Not at all. I have been married twice and never want to go down that road again. I am a product of a 1940s Jewish, East Coast upbringing. Recreational sex is not in my DNA. I have filled my time with writing, painting, trips to the theatre, music, and books. But it wasn’t until I was 70 years old and fully embracing my post-midlife second act by becoming a performer that I realised that I had been good at creating my vibrant, meaningful self, but I had forgotten to take care of the most basic human need. Touch. But where was I to get it at this late stage?
And once again, I am not talking about sex, although I would not mind that at all. I am talking about the kind of connection you get when someone holds you because they want to be close to you. I am talking about sitting next to someone and holding their hand as you share a movie, or a glass of wine. I am talking about someone’s skin next to mine.
I decided to take up dancing. The waltz, the tango, you name it, I was up for its warm embrace. I managed to convince a lovely older man named James to meet me at a local ballroom. I had known James for some time and had no romantic ideas about him at all. We were there to dance. That’s all. The music began and when he put his arm around me, I practically had an orgasm right there on the dance floor. I was in my early 70s and it was the first time in decades that any man had held me in his arms.
‘The sad truth: Older men are looking for younger women’
The sad truth is that older men are looking for younger women. The world doesn’t fully appreciate older women and it certainly doesn’t want us to dress in anything that reveals our bodies. It tells us being flamboyant is inappropriate. This needs to change. Age really is just a number. I’m fitter than many of friends 30 years younger.
As the Indian writer Uday Mukerji said: Human touch is explosive. It is so warm it melts away everything.
To make a point, I did a cabaret performance for my 87th birthday and I sang songs and told stories for an hour. I finished by sitting on a bar waving my legs at the audience.
The man who reviewed my show for a magazine said nothing about my clever songs. He didn’t mention the depth and meaning of the stories I told about what it feels like to be my age. No indeed. He spent two paragraphs discussing the fact that I was wearing hot pink tights and high heels. He was shocked. Why?
What does the perfect partner look like?
Before lockdown, I struck up a close friendship with a man in his late 60s. He has told me over and over that I am wonderful, I am inspiring, I am a delight. And then he tells me how he is longing to find the woman of his dreams. And I want to say: “Hey, what about me?” But I don’t of course. I wouldn’t dare. I look in the mirror and I see what he sees. I am not exciting to him and I never will be.
He has a very different picture in his mind of this perfect partner he seeks that has been reinforced by the movies he sees, the books he reads, the friends he has. That woman, the one he wants, doesn’t have crinkled skin and wrinkled lips. That woman has bouncy hips and a luscious cleavage. I asked him what he missed about his previous lover and he said, “She was young; she had a gorgeous body.” Well, I do not of course.
Does that mean I can never ease the skin hunger that has done nothing but increase over the years? Why do the visible signs of age that prove we have survived make us older women so undesirable? I still don’t have the answer to that one. But I do know, as the Indian writer Uday Mukerji once said: Human touch is explosive. It is so warm it melts away everything…
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