I'm a chick who likes her personal space. Hugs from strangers are not a concept I embrace easily.
So as I approach the group of eight holding their Hugs Toronto signs at Nathan Phillips Square on Saturday (January 27), part of a Hug Day sponsored by Free Hugs Toronto and the Toronto Hugs Coalition , my first reaction is to bolt.
But Laura Weaver , arms outstretched, is having none of it. "I don't bite," she laughs before wrapping her arms around me. I was her 25th hug of the day.
Started in 2004 "just to brighten up people's lives", the Free Hugs Campaign picked up speed and spread worldwide -- despite sometimes being shut down by police -- when a video hit YouTube showing "Juan Mann- (a pseudonym) hugging people in Sydney, Australia .
"In a lot of big cities it's hard for people to slow down and grab onto that European mentality," says Hug Day organizer Sonja Andic . "People need to be reminded that you can chat with a stranger on the subway and hug without being groped."
While drag queen Enza Supermodel Anderson and tennis player Andy Roddick crapped out on celebrity appearances, Nuit Blanche's HugMan and HugWoman , anonymous huggers decked out in formal wear, with shiny gift bags over their heads, are a hit with the kids, who think Mayor David Miller or Premier Dalton McGuinty might be lurking under the bags.
"I love giving long, deep hugs," says HugWoman. "I think they're really positive ways to blur boundaries. They're good for our immune system and can help with depression."
Weaver says she got the few odd looks and was told by one officer (we'll call him Cop Killjoy) that she "couldn't give any more free hugs." People might get the wrong idea, I guess. Are hugs a threat?
Says University of Toronto psychology professor Ulrich Schimmack , "In a big city, we want to keep our distance."
U of T sociologist Walter Podilchak says the human need to hug is always being suppressed and seen as "mildly inappropriate."
Now "people are saying, 'Let's take back our bodies and our social space,'" he says. "It's emotionally empowering."
What empowers me as I slip-slide onto the skating rink holding a Free Hugs sign is the number of kids who quickly come at me ready for a quick squeeze. Sort of intimidating, but damn fun. Maybe personal space is overrated after all.