Claire Black: Why is it wrong to pay for cuddles?

The Mekong River with Sue Perkins. Picture: BBC/Kate Owen
The Mekong River with Sue Perkins. Picture: BBC/Kate Owen
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‘I WAS at a place where I thought paying someone to hug me and not have ulterior motives sounded like a great idea,” Samantha Hess said. “I decided why can’t this be a thing that we can easily and safely reach for?”

And so Hess opened Cuddle Up To Me, a shop in Portland, Oregon where for $60 (£38) customers get an hour’s worth of cuddling or hair strokes or hand-holding. Cue howls of laughter, outpourings of derision, sarcasm, and general accusations of weirdness.

But why?

According to Hess her shop is busy. In one week, she received 10,000 e-mails. Can we really be surprised? In recent months we’ve been assailed by report after report revealing the depths of the loneliness crisis. If you were entrepreneurial, you might say that here is the very place for what would likely be a extremely successful branch of Cuddle Up To Me. After all, Britain is the loneliness capital of Europe. We are less likely to have strong friendships or to know our neighbours than people who live anywhere else in the EU. Many of us don’t have anyone to rely on in a crisis. A study by the charity Relate showed that one in ten people in the UK claimed that they had no friends and one in five said that they felt unloved in the fortnight leading up to the survey. And let’s be clear, loneliness is a killer. Research suggests it is twice as deadly as obesity, connected to high blood pressure, alcoholism, depression, paranoia, anxiety and suicide. Being alone too much is as damaging as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Amongst older people loneliness causes almost as many deaths as poverty.

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Have you been watching Sue Perkins’ journeying up the Mekong River on telly? I have. I like Perkins, she’s funny and clever and, as it turns out, a bit of a giggler. Time and time again, as she’s travelled through Vietnam and Cambodia, she has found herself amongst people who are materially much worse off than she is. And yet, she has felt at peace, tearful, moved as she describes it, in a way she seldom feels back at home. Each time this has happened it’s been precipitated by touch. The hermit who held her face in his hands and bumped his forehead against hers. The Cambodian villager who took her foraging, holding her hand as they walked, cuddled in. “We’re walking close like real friends,” the subtitles said. But that’s just it, lots of us, even very good friends, maybe even family, don’t touch each other at all. Hand holding stops when we grow up. Hair stroking is for intimate partners only.

And yet, we are social animals. We need each other. Not just on Facebook, or 140-character gobbets of each other on Twitter. Or a phonecall now and then as we wait for the bus. We need connection, understanding, we need to be touched. And so people now pay to be cuddled. And this is not a euphemism, it’s not a front for something else, it’s about being held or caressed in a caring way. That people now pay for cuddles maybe makes me feel a bit sad, but I’m more glad that at least there’s some way to get what they need. It should really be a whole lot easier.

Bye bye Barbie, hello Lammily!

POOR old Barbie. Ha, I’m lying, I can’t stand that lump of peroxide-topped plastic, I couldn’t when I was young enough to be her target market, still can’t now that I have to watch the adverts for her dog that does plastic poops so that she can scoop (I kid you not) while my son waits for Thomas the Tank Engine to start. But, she of the ever perky bosom, the ridiculously small waist and high-heeled shaped feet is about to, I hope, meet her match. Hello Lammily! Created by artist Nickolay Lamm, Lammily is made according to realistic body proportions and is the result of a crowdfunding campaign which allowed 13,621 backers to pre-order nearly 20,000 of the $25 dolls. (You can get them shipped over here for around a tenner.) “Many people criticise Barbie but there was no alternative,” Lamm said. “Now I’ve made one and when little girls see her, hold her, they feel like they already know her because she is more like them and the people they know.” All this in the week that, as Ladybird said it will stop gender branding its books, saw Mattel withdraw the book Barbie I Can Be a Computer Engineer because it turns out Barbie can’t be an engineer. She can be a designer but needs the help of the boys “to turn it into a real game!” Lammily, we need you and now. Barbie, you’re going down.

Phobia on end of a fork

AS A child, there was nothing I wanted more than a mess tray like the ones I saw on M*A*S*H. It was a dream of mine that I might be able to keep my food separate – no mince gravy infiltrating the mash. This was a phase I grew out of, but had it persisted into adulthood I might’ve earned the exotic sounding phobia – brumotactillophobia, the fear of food touching. Of course, what’s got me thinking about this is having to regularly watch Gregg, Monica and Marcus pile every element of a ridiculously complex dish onto one fork and thrust it into their mouths during Masterchef: The Professionals. That would be enough to give anyone a phobia.

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