I blamed the malady on my Irish side: the relatives who stared out from baby pictures like porcelain dolls. My mom’s parents were immigrants, effortfully proper in that just-hoping-to-blend-in-and-prosper kind of way, not to mention Catholic. Severely Catholic. When I read about “lace curtain Irish” in an American studies course in college, my ancestors provided an instant visual.
My father’s side, on the contrary, is a long line of American mutts, California-based for too many decades to trace back across the Atlantic. Dad grew up in a house with sandals, TV dinners, various pets, no religiously-coded conduct rules. The paternal genes were more loosely bound: less Mass, more beach. I never considered them as carriers.
Until the night the loud speaker called my Dad.
“Would the parents of the players please come out.”
He and I were high in the bleachers, slumped against the wall, waiting for the Holy Angels basketball game to begin. We were not expecting a voice.
“Oh geez.” Dad obeyed the voice, rising to his feet.
I consider my father a self-assured man. He started a business; he gives a fine toast; he’ll make small talk with a corn farmer as easily as a senator. But standing at half court, amidst the other parents, my dad turned the color of a pig roasted on charcoals. The blush spanned from shirt collar to balding spot. It dimmed none as Sister Kristen thanked the parents for their support, brownies, carpools-nothing remotely mortifying.
I looked down court, baffled. I’d have to revise my inheritances. Mom was the reason I wore SPF 45. Dad: why I sat in last rows.
“Blushing, though a fleeting episode, is experienced as an unwelcome public revelation of one’s most private thoughts,” wrote Angela Simon about a study at Morehead State University. “By ‘blushing,’ we specifically mean the transient feeling of warmth and/or skin color change associated with the occurrence of acute self-consciousness.”
Blushers remember a first time.
Sixth grade. Mrs. Mikulec had us keep journals in Language Arts class. I took the assignment further-on a plane to California.
Somewhere between Buffalo and San Francisco, a fleecy patch of clouds passed my oval window. Listening to the Aladdin soundtrack for about the 17th time, I was stirred by the coinciding songs of nature and Disney, and I opened my journal. There, I composed something that felt like true language art: my first metaphor.
Back at Christ the King, during a routine moment when boys shuffled through backpacks, girls clicked pens, Mrs. Mikulec called on me. She wanted me to share my latest journal entry with the class.
“No,” I said.
“Yes, Colleen, it’s lovely. Just read the plane part.”
“C’mon, Colleen. They’ll appreciate it.”
I had likened Delta flight 404 to a magic carpet ride.
“Yes. Get up here.”
One week had passed since the plane ride. One week, in the sixth grade scheme of growth, is enough to change your mind about everything. To forget your sanitary crush on Aladdin and start lusting after Jared Leto. A week is enough to decide you hate your own words. To regret language art.
There was a podium in the front of the room.
Science explains it in this order:
1. Situation causes shame or awkwardness.
2. Adrenaline is released.
3. Heart rate climbs.
4. Breathing quickens.
5. Facial blood vessels dilate.
6. Blood flows to face.
7. More blood flows to face.
8. Face turns noticeably red.
1-7, in a word, as heard from the inside: Foooosh.
It wasn’t Aladdin. It wasn’t the language art. It was her siege, multiplied by my resistance. A declaration to the public-to sixth grade class of Christ the King School-that reading in front of them was the last thing I desired to do. Then doing it.
I watched the rest happen from the back row. I watched over Peter’s head, over Ellen’s, over Brian’s, watching them watch the color bloom, billow, spread to the outer reaches of my face, quitting only at the hairline. People think blushing is the fear of public attention. There’s a difference between picking up the microphone, and the microphone plucking your name. The difference is a drastic crimson.
Participants in a study reported that it takes 1 to 4 seconds for a blush to occur.
Or longer. Or 5 to 10 seconds.
It depends on the subject. It depends on how the subject defines his or her blush. How he or she visualizes the color advancing across the cheeks-in a poof?, as a streak?, like the reindeer’s nose? Imagination colors the blush, clocks the blush. Imagination reads panic, or shame, or both. That first flicker, or its aftermath? Which supplies the color, which the heat?
I wonder about this blush of the imagination. When the test participants paused, their number two pencils hanging above the multiple choice options-1-4 seconds, 5-10 seconds, 11-25 seconds, half minute or more-what public shaming dislodged from memory? Was it any quicker in the reliving?
Sister Karen Marie made a sport of calling on her most mortify-able pupils. There were three Colleens in my class of fifty. Two thirds of these Colleens had the middle name Ann(e), two thirds were redheaded, and three thirds were prone to full-face blushes. I remember with pain the day “SKM” called Colleen McCarthy up to the chalkboard for some fill-in-the-blank-with-Bible-writers exercise. Colleen McCarthy did not know the Bible writer. SKM would not let her sit back down.
“Look,” SKM said, alerting us to the sight of Colleen, fuming panic against the green chalkboard. “It’s Christmas.”
When Angela Simon asked blushers how other people respond to their facial coloration, the most common response was: “they tease and try to get me to blush more.”
Will power accomplished nothing. In fact, will power like mine just stoked the fire. So I tried avoidance. I steered clear of any situation that might give my skin occasion to flare. I wore shorts under my plaid uniform skirt. I locked my journal in a small box under my bed and hid the key inside an unassuming stuffed animal beaver whose tail region I had slit open with a scissors. I did not raise my hand.
Erythrophobia refers to a pathological fear of blushing. It means “fear of redness.”
Invisibility gets boring, particularly once puberty begins. I tried a new strategy. I set out to convince my public that they were rude to point out a blush. “That’s the worst thing you can do,” I’d chastise, on behalf of blushers everywhere. The problem was less in my cheeks, I’d realized, more in their eyes. So if they could just be a tad less explicit about their observations, notify me on a less frequent basis, in a less public fashion, then I might just see it was a breeze passing through my complexion. Passing. Breeze. Might. Just.
Peter Drummond put fifty-six college women in a lab room in Murdoch University in Perth, Australia and told them to sing aloud to “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor for twenty seconds. After each woman sang, the experimenter entered the lab room to inform her whether or not she had blushed. At random, half of the women were told they blushed; the rest told they had not.
Each woman was then left alone for four minutes. After these four minutes, the experimenter returned and played a recording of “I Will Survive” with the subject’s voice in the background. Her voice was louder than Gloria Gaynor’s.
As hypothesized, Peter Drummond found that having given blushing feedback to those who scored high on the Blushing Propensity Scale, increased blood flow to the face, progressively.
“These findings suggest that expecting to blush may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
You could boil my early development down to two traits. The first: ambition. Its underbelly: fear. Not raw fear, but the anticipatory sort.
Fear of my fear of not catching baseballs.
Fear of my fear of singing like a seagull.
Fear of my fear of holding babies too stiffly.
Then I grew up. I sophisticated. I specialized the ambition, got distance on the fear. By “got distance,” I mean multiplied it out.
F³ =Fear of flare-up.
Fear of my fear of my fear of forgetting names.
Fear of my fear of my fear of my fear of sounding insincere.
Fear of my fear of my fear of clicking “no” when asked “Save Changes?”
What keeps all formulas intact is the blush-the awareness that I’m transparent. Faced with a public, for better or worse, I run the risk of lucidity. In the event of a falter, a curve ball, an unexpected, I have no place to handle it deeper than the plane of my skin.
The awareness-raising campaign proved problematic. I was telling people they had the power to hike up the hue of my cheeks, learning, meanwhile, that even friends-even fellow Colleens-will lord such power. So why not deny it? I could accuse my audience of blush illiteracy. A blush is not a blush is not a blush. But rather:
a) Amusement. Church giggles smothered in a sleeve.
s) Surprise. Spider in the shower.
p) Panic. Wallet not in your pocket. Wallet not in your purse.
e) Empathy. Colleen McCarthy kept at the blackboard, called Christmas.
d) Deluge of Emotion X. The end of Ghost.
A blush can manifest anything. A blush can manifest something good. Hilarious! Something you don’t know about. Even though roughly 87% of my blushes were born of raw humiliation, I prattled on about the spectrum. Not only because 13% was substantial, but because adolescence was teaching me things about self-esteem. About mine, its quirks. That what I needed, for the time being, was a placebo.
How do I know I blush?
I do. I know, because that much heat can’t be white. How could it stay porcelain white? I know I blush because I’ve laid a hand against my cheek, afterwards, felt it calm like a light bulb. I know because my skin’s thin and colorless; I’ve peeled it off after sunburns-sunburns that made strangers suck back their breath, sunburns I relished, under which I could smolder to high heaven. Only on sunburn days did I have room to imagine what it’s like in another’s pigment. With my skin scorched, I considered how I might act, given a guest pass to a Greek. How I could pull off just about anything, both cheeks dressed up. How, if all those F’s got reciprocated, even for a couple hours, the base might be snuffed right out.
- Flushed: The windowless office of my teaching assistant Angus, who wore kilts and never sat down when discussing a work of Shakespeare.
- Blush: “It says ‘Card Rejected,’ ma’am. ‘Insufficient funds?’”
- Peach: Saying goodbye, to anyone-but men especially-on elevators.
- Punch: Realizing, mid-afternoon, March 9th, that I had not written a rent check since people were remarking “Happy New Year.”
- Roseberry: Fielding a nun’s question-what religion are you?
- Flame: At the table of the MFA workshop, hearing this essay’s narrator critiqued.
- Cherry: The subway car where I spilled a bag of plastic hangers, moving my belongings from Manhattan to Brooklyn by F trains.
- Wine: The backdoor of a man who held eye contact too long, as he placed the Collected Works of Hunter S. Thompson into my hands. Fumble. Thump. Fooosh.
How do I know I blush? Actually color? Peach then punch then flame, skipping cherry, to wine? I know because I’ve caught the aftermath in bathroom mirrors. I know I blush because there’s a yearbook photo of my Dad and me dancing “The Twist” in the Holy Angels Father Daughter Dance Competition. A long rash stretches from cheekbone to jaw.
I know I blush because there are precedents, photo evidence, physical heat. I know I blush by my audience. Because people do the favor of lowering their eyes. Because other people don’t. Other people let you know what they see. Like I didn’t feel the spike in temperature. Like I wasn’t the furnace.
How do I know I blush? Pink, red, scarlet? Because that’s a preposterous question. Because I’ve never entertained that I don’t: it’s that forcible. That visual. Each skin cell, an eye.
Some claim that blushing is purposeful, from an evolutionary standpoint. Had it no purpose, humankind’s red-faced would have been eliminated from the gene pool long ago-as, were, perhaps, a freak purple-faced people who never got their pale counterparts into bed.
Blushing clues onlookers in that the looked-upon person is suffering. The onlookers, then, have the prerogative to alleviate that suffering. Their options are many: crack joke, digress, flatter, point. You might call blushing involuntary communication-a tacit apology for a moment, a secret, a fumble, a fart. One individual feels the heat; the clan gleans the meaning; society is less contentious for all.
This evolutionary compromise must have been hammered out before language was. With a few words, a sensitive soul might have raised her hand and explained that there’s pain in it for the spectator, too-even from the back row, the top bleacher. If evolution could come up with empathy, it should have done away with the blush. And when humans began chatting, their skin could have stopped saying so much.
I didn’t know any Koreans until college. The first Korean I made friends with didn’t drink. “The Asian flush,” he said, regretfully. I didn’t know what that was, but doubted it could trump my blush. He explained that his face could flare up after a single drink. Funny, I thought. My people drink to cancel out the blush-to enable what would, in sober hours, stain the skin a guilty scarlet.
For my first three years of college, I kissed no one without a half-quart of alcohol in my bloodstream. I spent my Sundays hung-over, reminded over brunch what was comedic about my Saturday night. It wasn’t until my senior year that a nice young man stopped by my dorm room-on a Tuesday-and we ended up horizontal on the futon.
“Stay,” I told his ear, surprising myself.
“I should go,” Chris said, sounding pliable.
He and I would quarrel about the conditions of our inaugural kiss for the next two years. I remembered this: me on top of Chris, playing predator-sober predator-for the first time in my life. Chris objects, having full memory of the previous Saturday evening, when he escorted me home from a toga party, to make out, until I got up to throw up.
Studies of blushing have aimed to identify the personality traits of people with high “blushing propensity scores.” In 1991, Leary and Meadows published a list of these traits.
The first was “embarassibility.”
Then “interaction anxiousness.”
Followed by “self esteem.”
And finally “refinement.”
Leary and Meadows explain that by “refinement,” they mean “the degree to which one enjoys or is repulsed by crass, uncouth, and vulgar behavior.”
Early morning. Planned Parenthood. I’m excessively early, having applied the caution to “beat the line” too earnestly. I nap in the cabin of the car, hearing others pull up: women, girls, their friends. I hope this will be quick. I just need birth control.
But birth control requires an exam, my nurse tells me. I expected a warm woman; she is not warm. “We can’t prescribe a pill without testing for herpes.” I pause-then realize this is not a choice she’s presenting. She gets tools. At the sight of these tools, my hands begin rubbing one another, rubbing hard. I wasn’t expecting a test. My fingers knead my knuckles. Then knead palms. The talking stops. She doesn’t give fair warning. The metal’s cold.
“You need to relax.”
My fingers knead my palms. “OK.” My fingers knead my eyebrows. They knead into eyeballs. I try gripping the paper gown.
“You’re pushing,” my nurse sighs. “Relax.”
I am told about pushing and am supposed to relax.
“Take a breath.” I take a breath, as my nurse observes, no patience in her body language, no placing aside tools. I’m doing that thing that complicates her job: working myself up.
Chris would know. He could read the braiding tension. He knew how to melt my resistance, and pace us just behind it. This is what first love meant: a man literate in the exponential fears, patient enough to wait them out, saying nothing but what helped. Sweet-nothing placebos.
“You’re crying.” That’s not a concern. That’s the accusation of my nurse.
Sex was an obvious fear. It fell on the same side of the line as singing solos and driving go-carts and spelling aloud at bees. Performance-with audience; not work I could master alone. I learned about sex among Catholics, girls who aspired to bring virginity on their honeymoons. F had years to multiply, and did.
“I won’t do this with you pushing,” the nurse protested, tool down.
These are the moments I don’t get people. These are the moments when not getting people feels like tightness just behind the eyebrows, an ice cream headache, a tear pen. Relax. As if self-command were that simple, a linear path-brain to cheeks, brain to legs, brain to belief.
Hypothesis: Since previous research has proven that blushing phobics do not have a particularly low threshold for blushing or especially intense coloration, then fear of blushing may be fueled by mechanisms other than facial color, such as a biased interpretation of the communicative value of the blush.
Participants: 40 female undergraduates at Maastricht University
Method: Females presented with vignettes of awkwardness (eg. spilling wine, mistakenly picking up someone else’s backpack and getting accosted by that person, spilling coffee).
Remuneration for Participants: Chocolate bars.
Title of Study: “Do Blushing Phobics Overestimate the Undesirable Communicative Effects of Their Blushing?”
Summary of Conclusions: No.
How I know I blush: Chris.
I just emailed, saying hey, writing about blushing, starting to wonder, as out of control as I think?
“When you blush, it’s slow, steady and complete,” replies Chris. “Pretty much the entire face to your ears.”
He continues, “When you’re trying to control it, when you’re in a public situation, you usually stick your neck out and nod a little, with a bit of an ‘oh my’ smile on your mouth. Or you do a little nod and cough, your lips tight.”
About here, I had to look away from the monitor.
The most common strategy that participants of Angela Simon’s study used to conceal a blush was: “try not to act embarrassed.”
“When it’s a complete surprise, you say ‘Whoah,’ kind of laugh to cover up the blush, and sort of stumble a few steps back, your left hand on the crook of your right arm, and the right arm kind of fanning the air to get the embarrassing thing away.”
About here, I wished I hadn’t asked.
Last try: humor.
“.Then I turned BRI-ght red,” My sister and I say when recounting our episodes. Molly not only shares my tendency to turn BRI-ght red, but she has BRI-ght red hair. Moreover, she is gorgeous. Molly has grown up with eyes on her, questions peppering her commute: if not “You play basketball?” then, “Do you model?” At my sister’s 6’2 altitude, there’s no place to hide a burst of color.
Self-deprecation, she has made her art. Molly has dinner party guests rolling on the floor with first date catastrophe tales. She digs up photos of herself in fanny packs, visors, braces, and attaches them to group emails. I can’t tell if this is an entrenched defense mechanism, or if this is a swan, reveling in the ugly duckling days.
Regardless, I’ve adopted Molly’s tactic. I’ve learned to make fun of my blush before anyone can pity it. To lean on the BRI in bright. To mime a facial explosion, using all ten fingers. Foosh. Watching Molly lets me imagine that the blush is an element of my charm-sweet, bizarre, old-fashioned, BRI-ight. I try hard to believe that any one inclined to like or love me would like or love me for bleeding emotion through my skin. That the blush is the flourish of an idiosyncratic voice. One that apologizes, but doesn’t. That self-loathes as readily as it self-loves. That can’t dwell on any gradation of self-perception in between.
“Of course then I turned BRI-ght red,” I hear myself working into my stories, particularly around people I’ve recently met. New, uncalibrated audiences. If they think I’m okay with the color storms-or if I think they think I’m okay-then the flash flood moment is less disarming-to me first, then them, though by them, it doesn’t matter. It’s my defense mechanism come full circle. I’ve taken the audience out of the equation. Now: it’s a question of charming myself. How convincingly? Can’t tell you.
Sister Karen Marie showed us what Christmas looked like, but left it to her Holy Angels pupils to learn about the post-coital blush for themselves.
Before I knew there was such a term, I stood before the wall-to-wall mirror of my dorm room bathroom, one hand raised to one cheek. The cuts of rouge stunned me-how brazenly, how beautifully, the red clashed against the lace-curtain white expanse of chest. Here was a blush in full bloom, no freckle of shame visible beneath it.
Science claims that the facial coloration of sexual climax has no relation to erythrophobia. What I know science neglects to consider is how much a woman has to let go in order to reach her peak.
In 1990, Shields, Mallory, and Simon discovered a correlation between blushing and age. As subjects grew older, they blushed less-with less frequency. No note on the intensity of the facial coloration.
All three sisters are together-Katie, Molly, and I-on vacation, riding in a taxi cab in Southern India. Molly lives here now, New Dehli’s token six-foot red-head. Just the other day, outside the Taj Mahal, I watched her get mauled by no less than fifty giggle-frenzied school girls and short middle-aged men. “One snap!” the strangers chimed, holding up cameras, beckoning family members to join in. The whole crew forsaking the white fortress at our backs. The most photographed site in the world.
On our taxi ride through the mountains, Molly and I begin exchanging mortifying moments, one-upping each other’s crimson climaxes. Molly at Pakistani customs, the intimate contents of her suitcase yanked out. Me: bungling dance lessons in Havana, claiming “Tengo un problema con los pies.” Molly: fidgeting with PowerPoint, ten quiet co-workers waiting. Me fumbling for my cell phone, a noise-free writer’s colony tisking. Stains here, burps there-
“God, you guys,” Katie says with disdain. Katie, sitting shotgun, holding her place as oldest child, looks out the cab window. Katie has never been a blusher. She sunburns like an albino, but no rashes of shame. I attribute this to confidence-confidence she grew up with, not into. There are no microscopic eyes camping out in Katie’s skin.
“Stop,” she commands us. “This is painful.”
We ignore Katie. We keep going. “Then I turned BRI-ght red.” We pile blush upon blush, until our faces bloom with vicarious shame. “I’m talking BRI-ght, red…”
Molly fans her face, the laughter asphyxiating her. “You DIDN’T.”
I notice pink blotches at the base of Molly’s neck. I’ve never had neck blotches. Have I?
Katie is shaking her head. Without seeing her face, I know Katie’s lips are parted, displeased and uncomprehending. “Jesus…” She says, wishing her last name was Tomasseli.
I can think of no better use of a reunion of Kinders than this. A mutual roasting, remembering that when I turn the color of pinot noir, I’m in beloved company.
I do the honors. Dredge up the latest blush. For old times’ sake, I make Katie and Molly squirm and glow, respectively.
“I don’t like meeting peoples’ eyes so I focus on eyebrows instead,” I read this admission aloud to a freshman Rhetoric class at the University of Iowa. I’m leaning against the edge of the front desk. It has taken me two and a half months to hazard such a lean, fearing that the fold-up desk would collapse upon meeting the rookie teacher’s buttock. Today: so far, so good.
I’ve just had my students write on a piece of paper:
1) What they find hardest about public speaking
2) What mental trick they use to overcome their fears
Now, after collecting the 23 scraps of folded paper, shuffling them for anonymity, I’m sharing with the class.
“I practice my speech in front of a mirror in my dorm...”
The University of Iowa requires all freshmen to give three speeches for this Gen-Ed class. The University of Iowa does not give its Rhetoric teaching assistants any guidance on how to teach public speaking. My pedagogy is about as sophisticated as the plastic grin of a soccer mom. I coax; I nod; I’m always the first to clap.
I figure it might behoove them to know that few phobias are unique. And since it’s the gimmicks, the mental ploys, the placebos that tide us over until our confidence finds a way to solidify, then I can at least give my students’ confessions a safe, faceless forum.
“I hold my hands in my pockets so no one sees them shake.”
I interject supportive commentary as I read: “Yup, that’s hard for all of us,” or “Not a bad idea.”
“I don’t think public speaking is that hard so please-”
My voice slows. It’s too late to censor the sentence. I feel twin bulls-eyes emerging on my cheeks. 46 silent eyes have me.
“-stop making such a big deal about it.”