I have always been a blusher. Early on, as a kid, it was considered cute: When my face burned up as I unwrapped birthday presents in front of my ice cream–stained peers? So sweet. When my cheeks went into flames as I delivered my bat mitzvah speech? Precious. When I reddened onstage at my fifth grade spelling bee after I added an E to the word laundry? A-d-o-r-a-b-l-e.
I never wanted to be someone who blushes, though. I dreaded each instance. It always started the same: an itching under the skin first, then a feeling of heat, and then that terrible color, starting at my neck, then climbing up my cheeks and into my scalp: red, red, RED.
My blushing wasn’t so severe as to require medical intervention, but it was a regular source of discomfort—especially when well-meaning but nosy adults would make comments. I was too young then to understand what triggered the sensation, and though as I grew older the frequency diminished, my anxiety surrounding it only grew. When a professor called on me to answer in class, when a friend said I looked nice, when I tripped on the stairs at Fort Greene Park and split my knees open and caused two other joggers to stop to offer help, I begged my face to cooperate, but against my will, every time, the heat rose to my cheeks. Why, why, why, I begged that stupid, burning face, why are you doing this to me? And then I’d blush even more.
Of course, that question—why we blush—is much trickier to answer than how. The former involves the psychological, and the latter merely the physiological. Physiologically speaking, blushing occurs when the adrenal glands are triggered to release adrenaline, which dilates the blood vessels in the face and neck. Even for a nonscientist like me, that’s pretty straightforward. But the events that cause that inciting adrenaline rush? Well, that’s a bit more complicated.
According to the ever-kinky Freud’s theories on psychoanalysis, blushing is a displaced erection, the flushed admission of our repressed sexual desire. In Renaissance paintings it’s literal disgrace, as when Adam and Eve nosh from the tree of knowledge and first recognize their own nakedness. In Shakespeare’s most syrupy play, blushing appears on the imagined cheeks of pilgrims to indicate Romeo and Juliet’s forbidden desire. Across the novels of Jane Austen, blushing reveals her heroines’ unadmitted romantic proclivities, stepping in where words fail.
The unifying theme among all these, of course, is shame: “Man is the Animal that Blushes. He is the only one that does it or has occasion to,” as Mark Twain famously said. He’s right about its uniqueness to humans; even our chimpanzee cousins—who, like us, scream, cry, laugh—do not blush. Charles Darwin, while not busy chasing finches on the Galapagos, was likewise fascinated by the phenomenon: In his lengthy research, he marveled that at the earliest, children only start blushing around 3 years of age. The physical requisites are in place from birth, but not until later the necessary emotional dexterity. More than poetry, music, or taxes, Darwin considered blushing, and the intricate sense of shame that evokes it, to be “the most peculiar and the most human of all expressions.”
When I blush, however, it doesn’t feel like an expression of shame. Or at least not always. (Knocking over wine glasses at nearly every party I’ve ever attended, falling out of crow pose in a $27 yoga class, buying just tampons and nonfat Cool Whip alone at 2 a.m.—OK, yeah, those are shame blushes.) But we blushers also experience flaming cheeks when receiving compliments, which should fill us with pride, not shame. Is it from insecurity that we are unworthy of the praise—that we are not the great comic, the beautiful face, or the spectacular baker we’ve been characterized to be? Or is it provoked by a sense of vulnerability, of actually being seen as we see ourselves, and thus left exposed as if we had been naked?
But then, that’s the thing about blushing: It ultimately reveals how we feel about our own actions and how we feel about those who bear witness to them. I had a lot of time to consider the issue: Each time my face burned up, I probed it for meaning. If I couldn’t stop it, I hoped I could at least understand it. Recently, I blushed while officiating the wedding of my two closest college friends. When I stopped talking and the groom kissed the bride, I realized the flush was one of worry: I’m a professional writer, and what if people thought I hadn’t brought fresh enough perspective to the concept of marriage in my remarks? When the other guests congratulated me during cocktail hour on a great job, I blushed again; it was nice to hear the kind words, but part of me didn’t believe I could have done the occasion justice. Blushing, for me, has become something of a litmus test: I can now always tell whether I’m into a date when he says I look “nice.” If I blush on receiving the compliment, I know that I must like its deliverer, and if my face remains calm? We’re doomed from the start. I’ve finally realized that the words alone aren’t the source of the shame, the glory, the blushing—it’s wanting to believe them, or worrying that I don’t.
In that way, though it’s uncomfortable to expose our inner thoughts to an unforgiving or indifferent public, our faces also have the power to show us what we, too, did not previously know. When we blush, we bear the physical evidence of caring what others think, of caring what we think about ourselves. It’s horrifying to experience, a dermatological scarlet letter revealing our innermost thoughts, and yet it’s also enlightening: our body’s insistence on leaking our truths, audience be damned.
While I was finishing the writing of this essay, I mentioned it to someone I both admire and love. He said he couldn’t wait to read it, and of course my cheeks turned bright red. (I know: Blushing about an essay about blushing? C’mon!) I can’t control what my face reveals, but sometimes it feels nice to be reminded of our vulnerability. I felt OK showing him, showing myself, and now showing you what my face refuses to hide, perhaps the ultimate vulnerability: that I care. I care a lot.