So last night I went to a cuddle party.
I have been back in the US for over three weeks now, and it has been a total whirlwind of seeing family and friends and dogsitting and career counseling and traveling and living out of suitcases, and there are a million or so things that have been going through my head to write about, but the cuddling is what finally got me back to my blog.
For those of you unfamiliar with cuddle parties, they’re basically what they sound like – a group of people together in a room, cuddling and hugging each other in an assortment of non-sexual configurations. So what on earth possessed me to cuddle with a bunch of strangers in my pajamas?
My first inclination is to answer that self-posed question snarkily, to say that it makes for a good story to tell people at parties. And that’s not entirely untrue – I definitely enjoy sharing the tales of my exploits with friends. But it would also be avoiding the deeper truth, that I found it an incredibly moving experience.
I had first heard about it on a forum dedicated to ferreting out bizarre goings-on on the internet, where cuddle parties had gotten a brief mention. I think I laughed when I read about it, but the idea lingered. I wound up browsing on their website and found myself really drawn to the dedication to practicing honest and effective communication around boundaries. Some of the most important rules of cuddle parties revolve around feeling free to say no when you mean it, to accept no when you hear it, and to have the absolute freedom to decide how and when you want to be touched, if at all. Not only have I been forced into being touched against my will in the past, I have also had many sexual experiences where I effectively said yes because I feared the consequences of saying no, and that has lingered with me for years. So I was delighted at the idea of being in a place where it was entirely safe to say no and where one’s bodily autonomy would be so unquestionably upheld.
Additionally, I’ve had this life-long struggle to learn to really inhabit my body, and touching and being touched has always been so fraught. For so long I felt that no one would ever want me to inflict my body on them, that asking someone to touch me would be akin to asking them to eat dirty cat litter: a thoroughly revolting experience that no one would ever voluntarily undertake. I don’t feel like that anymore, but it’s never entirely left me either, and oh boy, did I feel that when I was on my way to the party. What if I were the only fat girl there? What if I sat alone in a corner while everyone hugged and had fun and I was entirely left out like at dances at middle school? What if I asked someone to cuddle and they puked on my feet in response? What if I said yes when I really didn’t want to, just like old times? What if I was too scared to touch anyone at all? As much as I wanted to go, I was surprised at how much body anxiety was kicked up by the mere thought of exposing myself to potential rejection.
It didn’t help either that once I arrived, I realized that I actually was the only fat girl there, and that as we all chatted and did the opening exercises, I realized that everyone was friendly and appealing and attractive and outgoing and seemed like totally cool, fun people and I feared I wouldn’t measure up. I was having a great time talking, but was totally nervous about what would happen once the structured exercises ended and the freestyle cuddling commenced (and yes, it really is called freestyle cuddling!)
And of course, my fears were not entirely realized – isn’t that usually the case when it comes to fear? The room was quite warm by the end of the welcome circle, so I got a drink of water and collected myself and just sort of breathed and watched from the sidelines and chatted with the other thirsty people. Not long after, one of them invited me to come lie down for a hug and continue our talk. I must confess that it is quite a disconcerting experience to have the discussion of “what do you do?” while wrapped up in a big hug after you’ve just met, but I adapted to it pretty damn quickly. By the end of the night I’d participated in massages and hugging and back rubs and foot rubs and spooning and head and back scratching and hair braiding and a massage train and a giant pile of cuddling and I kept laughing and sighing in pleasure and I totally loved it. By the end of the night I was more relaxed than I’d been in ages, absolutely blissed out and languid and practically in an altered state from all of the stroking and contact. I felt so fully integrated in my body, so harmonious in my skin, and so connected to everyone in the room.
I also did say no. It turned out that I didn’t actually want to as much as I thought I might, but I was approached by someone who gave me an uncomfortable vibe, and I said no with absolutely no guilt and moved on and that was that. I was also turned down. I asked someone for a hug and she said no and it totally amazed me at how easy that was to hear. I pretty much always take it personally when someone says no to my touch – it feels like a referendum on my worth as a human being – but this time I was able to really get it that I have no idea what her reasons were, or whether they had to do with me or not, and that was perfectly okay, it didn’t hurt at all.
There were also people there whom I didn’t get a chance to interact with at all, and sometimes I got a feeling that they wouldn’t have wanted to cuddle with me, that I didn’t do it for them. And it kind of shocked me how okay that was too. Maybe they didn’t like the way I talked or the way I looked or the way my hair smelled (I made the mistake of dyeing it that morning) or yes, even my fat body, but what a relief to be reminded that I don’t need to be all things to all people. How liberating to think that people can be indifferent to me or dislike me or even be disgusted by me, and that changes nothing about me being a worthwhile, lovable person.
It was also so wonderful to let go of the cynicism that is so frequently my default state. We closed out the party by talking about what the evening allowed us to appreciate about ourselves and I said how much it clarified for me that am a warm, affectionate person who loves touching and being touched. I don’t need to be ashamed of that. I get the impulse to be uncomfortable and joke about the earnestness of it all – we all were at the beginning, giggling like 6th graders in sex ed class – but dropping my defenses didn’t leave me vulnerable to pain, just open to pleasure. And who couldn’t use more pleasure and joy in this world?
At the beginning of the party, the facilitator talked about how she found cuddling to be absolutely transformative in her life, and it seemed to me at the time an overstatement, but now I understand. I can’t wait to go back.