Open Gently

Musings on the introspective life.

Grooming Your Girlfriends: Pick That Lint!

We all need more love from more places—take your friend to the beauty salon.

Don't be afraid to touch your friends. It's healing, and deeply human—actually, primate.  

The urge to groom others, picking a piece of lint from a friend’s sweater or tucking in an exposed label, is an urge to indulge.

Animals of all kinds lick, peck and pick at each other to remove dirt and to bond. In primates, being groomed is measurably relaxing—it lowers the heart rate and discourages scratching, a sign of stress. It may also release feel-good chemicals in the brain such as endorphins or oxytocin. Research shows that when monkeys receive doses of morphine (which has a similar effect as endorphins), they request less grooming from others. When endorphins in the brain are chemically blocked, monkeys petition for more grooming.

While social grooming occurs across the animal kingdom, it is especially important among primates, who spend far more time on it than they need merely to be clean. The bigger the social group of a species, the more time it tends to devote to mutual grooming. In fact, British anthropologist Robin Ian MacDonald Dunbar argues that social grooming has evolved to help primates, including ourselves, build the kind of protective relationships that make society possible. (Dunbar is best known for formulating Dunbar's number—roughly 150—a measure of how many relationships one person can sustain.)

So maybe it's not so surprising that  another form of non-sexual touch—massage—not only helps people bond, but it also reduces anxiety and improves mental health. According to a meta-analysis of 37 studies, about three-quarters of the people who received a course of massage therapy had less anxiety or depression than those who didn’t—not far off from the measurable success rate of psychotherapy. Seeing the same body worker for regular visits may be especially healing.

Any bonding has a surprisingly big impact on physical health. In fact, isolation is deadly—about as dangerous as alcoholism or smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to research at Brigham Young University.

A beauty salon can be a refuge for women who are monitored by a controlling partner. "A salon is one of the few places some abused women feel safe," says Linda Falcone, a spokesperson for Empire Beauty Schools, which teaches students how to respond when a client confides stories of abuse and what to say when they see suspicious bruises or hear about constant monitoring calls and texts. The students are trained to offer the name and phone numbers of organizations that can do more to help. In addition, each of the more than a hundred schools has adopted a woman’s shelter. Students and staff raise funds for the shelter and provide free beauty services to the residents.

In one of Vancouver’s grittiest neighborhoods, the 11-year-old nonprofit Beauty Night has given over 11,000 "life-makeovers" to women who live in poverty, offering help with budgets and screening for diabetes, along with makeup, haircuts and nail polish. Many of the visitors have been raped and blame themselves, according to founder Caroline Macgillivray. "I hear them say, ‘I’ve never been touched by someone who doesn’t want anything.’” Beauty treatments are a starting point to help the women open up and learn to trust again. "Women will come in for a haircut," she says. "After they get to know you, they’ll let you give them a massage."

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Temma Ehrenfeld is a New York-based science writer, and former assistant editor at Newsweek.

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