“….attention closely directed to any part of the body tends to interfere with the ordinary and tonic contraction of the small arteries of that part. These vessels, in consequence, become at such times more or less relaxed, and are instantly filled with arterial blood. This tendency will have been much strengthened, if frequent attention has been paid during many generations to the same part, owing to nerve – force readily flowing along accustomed channels, and by power of inheritance. Whenever we believe that others are depreciating or even considering our personal appearance, our attention is vividly directed to the outer and visible parts of our bodies; and of all such parts we are most sensitive about our faces, as no doubt has been the case during many past generations. Therefore, assuming for the moment that the capillary vessels can be acted on by close attention, those of the face will have become eminently susceptible.”

— Charles Darwin’s theory of blushing from The expression of the emotions in man and animals (1872)

I often blush. My cheeks, my nose, chin and ears easily turn red and my whole body grows hot and tingles. Often I will take off a layer of clothes. While pulling my shirt over my head I am releasing some of the excessive heat but I am also trying to hide from the person who made me blush, if only for a brief moment. After doing this, I will most likely still be red. Then, usually I will confront the person who made me blush by looking directly into his or her eyes. In so doing, I reveal my inner experience, leaving myself totally vulnerable to the outside world.

Blushing and feeling embarrassed have been recurring experiences throughout my life. There are times when the slightest remark by a stranger can cause my face to turn red. In the past, I have even avoided situations and people for fear of turning red. Fortunately, at other times, it has not been a burning issue in my life. My blushing is more like an old companion that every once in a while decides to show up.

In The expression of the emotions in man and animals (1872) Charles Darwin describes blushing as “the most peculiar and most human of all expressions”. Even though human beings and animals show similar expressions of emotion, blushing is a unique human experience.

Childhood

My first memories of blushing go back to my childhood.
I must have been about 4 years old. I remember parents were waiting at the school gate.
I could see my mother in the distance.
I had to bring back a book I borrowed from the school library.
Holding on to a warm and secure hand that was guiding me towards the library, I presumed that my mother was walking next to me. Suddenly, I realised it was someone else’s hand. I felt that everyone at the school gate was making fun of me. I was extremely embarrassed.
Most likely nobody was laughing at me but nevertheless it made a great impact.
Recently, while playing with my daughter in the playground, this memory came back to me.
It was a hot day and sprinklers were cooling down the children. They frolicked back and forth through the cold water, all of them fully dressed. Their parents had probably brought a set of fresh clothes for them. But I did not. So I undressed my daughter down to her diaper. But she wanted to be fully naked and took everything off. Running around naked and feeling free, she ran and ran and ran around the entire playground, way beyond the sprinklers, past old people sitting on benches, and finally came to an empty basketball field which was separated from the school playground by a fence.

The children were having their outdoor play break. I could hear them screaming and running towards the gate. My naked daughter was approaching the gate at full speed, looking for a way to join the other children. I could just grab her arm before she could continue her streaking.
The kids were yelling and laughing at her.

I was so happy that she was not embarrassed or ashamed of anything.
It made me think. How can she always be as free as she was feeling that day?

Parenthood

One evening when I was a child, my father took me to a fair in the nearby village. Together we took a ride on the “spider”. Securely attached to one of the “spiders” feet, we shot up into the air. The speed at which the spider’s arms were moving pushed my tiny body against his. Something went wrong. I could see he was not enjoying the ride. With his arms raised up, he started to scream : “Help! Help!” He was convinced that we were not securely fastened and that we were about to fall. I remember feeling terribly ashamed of my father, even though I was a little afraid myself.

Now I have complete sympathy for him. I would never take a spider ride again until perhaps I am forced to do so by my daughter. History can repeat itself.

Cities in Morocco seem to appear out of nowhere and often they look unfinished.
A concrete block of flats can have dishtowels hanging from the windows that have no glass or any other form of covering. Cables dangle loosely along walls and blocks of concrete are scattered on the ground. Construction is usually done quickly and without much thought behind it. Even so, women keep their front doorsteps meticulously clean, the smell of chlorine filling your nostrils as you walk along the scruffy streets.

In one of those dusty back streets, leading to nowhere but deserted hills in Taliouine, I saw a donkey and a young boy in conflict. The boy was beating the animal and pushing with all his might. But the donkey refused to move. It disturbed me to see the way some people treated their donkeys and horses in Morocco where animal rights are no priority.

Then I witnessed something that I was not meant to see: a woman runs down the street and grabs the boy by the arm. She slaps him with force in his face, then drags him up the street, leaving the donkey behind. Something tells me he did not get slapped for hurting the animal. There was a resemblance between the way the mother hit the boy and the way the boy was hitting the donkey.

When I was about 8 years old, I am travelling with my father in a tram in Amsterdam. We are having a good time. At this age, I think that my father is the wisest man on Earth. Being in his presence is reassuring. It is time to get off the tram. As we step onto the pavement I see my father’s

hands grab at his balding head and he swears. He taps violently on the window of the tram that is about to take off. The doors open. My father runs inside and then comes running out again with his hat back on his head. His face is bright red. I am very impressed to see my father like this. For the first time I understand that fathers also can be ashamed of themselves and turn red.

Witnessing embarrassment or blushing in others can make one feel uncomfortable. Often I sympathise with the blusher. People become immediately more human and identifiable because of their vulnerability.

Someone told me that Prince Charles is a notorious blusher. A famous incident happened when ‘Spice Girl’ Geri Halliwell kissed the Prince on his cheek, with red lipstick, and pinched his buttocks. His face clearly reddened from ear to ear.

The teenager

As a teenager, I seemed to have had a constant feeling of shame and the red flare was more present than not. My commute to high school involved a bike ride, a train ride and then another bike ride. It could be a torturous journey where I felt exposed. This feeling of being looked at existed only in my own mind, not in the eyes of others.

There were two places where I often saw the red-haired boy I was secretly in love with. He did not have the faintest idea that I liked him. If his gaze went slightly in my direction, I blushed intensely. I tried to avoid those places when I could.

Even though my legs were skinny I developed a preference for wearing “hot”pants. Going to school I had to pass the school yard where rows of girls and boys were lined up against the walls, smoking their first cigarettes. As I passed them on my bike, I could hear them shouting : “There goes the goat again!” How I wished at that moment the ground had a hole that I could disappear into.

My hair was shoulder-length. A length that turned out ideal to hide my face behind when it was my turn to speak in front of the class.

As a teenager, I felt as if I was constantly out of control. And it was during this time that I developed an obsessive disorder related to my body image. I tried to take back control by having ‘power’ over my body ; not surprisingly, this was based on an illusion. But I did conquer the illness and a new phase awaited me where the red-headed friend was not so present any more. Many years passed in between.

Being looked at

Today I am photographed a lot for magazines. I stride along catwalks and backstage photographers take pictures of me from every corner of the space. Also, my physical presence has become part of other people’s visual ideas and imagery. I do enjoy giving this aspect of myself to other people.
It feels like a safe place where I can become something or someone else for a while.

However, there is something strange going on. I am a very shy person. People who have met me or who know me, will most likely agree about that.

I am sitting in front of a mirror in preparation for a photoshoot.
My hair and make-up will soon be done. I see myself, and maybe eight or ten people behind me, in the mirror. People start talking about me.
“Her eyebrows have holes in them, we should fill them in.”
“ Her face has nice angles.”
“ Saskia’s lips are very pink.” Etc.

Nothing extraordinary or exceptional is being discussed relating to the photoshoot.
Our conversation takes place via the mirror in which I see myself and others looking at me.
But I do wish they would all go. I have no way of hiding my face. My hair is short and I am inside a plastic cape, which prevents my hands from hiding my face. The cape gets hot inside. I see others looking at me and I see myself slowly turning red. It doesn’t matter whether this attention is positive or negative in these kind of situations. When I find myself in the spotlight and realise I am being looked at, I can feel the blood rushing to my face.

However, once I am transformed into the character I will embody that day, being in the “spotlight” will no longer bother me. There is just a person looking at me through a lens, and, of course, many onlookers who blur into the background.

The lens to me is a third person looking at me, something through which I can communicate with a photographer. It is no longer about me and I feel completely free from any sense of shame or embarrassment that I so strongly felt while looking at myself being looked at in the mirror.

Being shy does not mean having fear. You can be fearless if you feel at ease in the role you are comfortable with. We play many roles throughout our life, shifting between them can be a tool to feel free.

Shamelessness

In the 466 days since he took the oath of office as President of the United States of America, Donald Trump has made 3,001 false or misleading claims, according to The Fact Checker’s database that analyses, categorises and tracks every suspect statement uttered by the president. That’s an average of nearly 6.5 claims a day. From www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2018/05/01/

Trump’s layer of suntan lotion makes it hard to detect any blushing. But I suspect shame is foreign to him.

In Paris recently, a very expensive dinner is laid out in one of the most beautiful gardens of the city. I am invited to attend this dinner party although I am not to sure why. This feeling becomes even stronger as I sit down next to the people at my table and everybody decides to ignore me. I feel terribly uncomfortable, but it gives me enough time to start a journey in my head with my table companions as the main characters.

The park is surrounded by houses where only the very rich live, with balconies on the top-floors. It is dark and most of the lights of the top-floor apartments are switched off. My wandering gaze rises up and I see something I have never seen before.

On one of the balconies still lit, I see the silhouette of a man and and a woman making love passionately. One of her legs is raised up on the balcony ledge and he is pushing against her from behind.
The spectacle is not only noticed by me. The table conversation has become muted as all the guests stare upwards. It goes on for many minutes. Then the light switches off and the couple become invisible again. All the guests at the dinner party applaud. I blush and I think I am not the only one.

On 23rd street and 7th Avenue, Manhattan, I pass a group of homeless men and a woman. The woman is sitting on top of one of the men.
I can see her chubby body moving up and down his penis.
It is all visible to people on the street.

They are intoxicated and, for them, the outside world does not seem to exist. Yet, it is not without tenderness. I can’t look and yet I am watching. I am curious and ashamed at the same time. They are doing it right next to the subway entrance where many people have to pass.

Inside the subway an old woman is eating a kiwi. She bites into the fruit with its skin still on. In one big bite the fruit disappears into her toothless mouth. The green kiwi juice drips down her face. It looks really unappetising.

New York city is an obsessed place. In a metropolis where so many things happen simultaneously, can you become immune to perceiving these strange details of daily life? Probably when you have nothing more to lose, the opinion of others is really not that important any more and you can identify with the ‘strangers’ of this city. It is actually a very fine line.

On assignment, I am sitting in a car with a very beautiful girl who I have been working with for a few days. Our conversation has come to a stop. I think we are both contemplating the words we just shared, while enjoying the passing landscape. Then she takes a phone from her bag and shamelessly starts to take photographs of herself, with pursed lips and a sexy look in her eyes. She seems to me like another person than the one I just spoke to.

I am in a subway on my way home.
On my right, a middle aged man sits next to me and is texting on his i-phone. I can read :

It is 2.45 now

I am waiting for you in the room, just give your name at the reception. I am two stops away from you, you can already get undressed

I am not sure exactly the meaning of what I have just read, it is just speculation. His screensaver shows a happy family with smiling children.

On my left, a young man is sitting next to me.
He is deeply involved with the screen of his phone, looking at baby photos. Some baby sounds are coming from his phone.
A smile appears on his face as he watches some selfies taken with the baby. He scrolls further down the screen.
A man with a gun next to a crashed car appears.
Then I see a table with a TV and carefully arranged video games.
There are also some gun-like objects used for the video games.
He suddenly wakes up from his screen and asks me: “Are we in Brooklyn yet?”

A new era has arrived. Without me even really noticing, it was there at my doorstep penetrating every aspect of my life. Even bringing my daughter to daycare I am confronted with photographers taking pictures for their self-promotional Instagram account. Often I feel disconnected from this time shift. The values that I learnt — like modesty in the broadest sense of the word — no longer seem to be of any importance. Shameless self-promotion showing futile details of your personal life have become aspirations. Our society seems no longer to have any time for being shy, careful or subtle. Bold, loud, bright and brash form the taste of our time.

“…the young blush more freely than the old…”, Darwin wrote in Expression of emotions in man and animals and it is probably true. Traces of our experiences in life become part of our bodies and yet we are more able to hide our embarrassment behind our acquired manners.

Being a blusher myself I know it is not something that you are proud of. However, when there are so many layers of ‘fakeness’ to plough through these days — from banal social media images to lying politicians — there is something to be said for having your emotions easily readable to the outside world. To have your body and skin in touch with the surrounding space and real people is as real as it can get.