Probably not… but for Jo Macfarlane, who has an irrational fear of jewelry is her worst nightmare
“For as long as I can remember, I have felt this same intense disgust with any type of jewelry”
As Benedict Cumberbatch deliberately walked away from a copper tub filled with swans, his wet T-shirt clung to every tendon in his muscular torso. Some swooned at the sleek image, taken for the cover of a glossy magazine. Others wondered why a flock of soapy swans caused the Oscar-nominated actor such obvious concern.
In my case, however, I physically shivered. Because all I could see was the thick silver chain wrapped loosely around her neck, captured in a silent, horrifying motion. The stylist probably thought it gave her swagger; a tough man edge at odds with his public school past. But for me, the idea of cold metal on his skin – the way I knew he’d brush against his surface as he walked – elicited a reaction that most people would consider distinctly odd: waves of nausea washed over me. made you gasp. I was, quite literally, repulsed because I’m part of a group of people with a weird and debilitating fear of jewelry. It has a name – kosmemophobia – and a community Facebook page with a modest 600 likes worldwide.
Before I stumbled upon it last year, I thought I was the only one – bare limbed oddity. The past two years of minimalist loungewear and accessories have given me some respite from my phobia, but now it’s worse than ever as summer 2022 rolls around, festooned with chunky chains, earrings ear knockers and cocktail rings. As one Facebook group contributor put it: “To me, touching jewelry is like touching a toilet seat covered in mold and rust – it’s unpleasant, and I can’t do it for very long. It leaves an annoying tingle on your skin that you just want to wash away.
Another member wrote, “Every time I watch Friends and see Phoebe wearing a ring on almost every finger, an uncomfortable shiver runs up my spine. I immediately start thinking about how I could dodge a handful. hand if I faced such hands.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt that same intense disgust with any type of jewelry. Chain necklaces, especially thin, edgy ones, are the worst. But earrings or bracelets, especially dangling ones, all trigger the same strong physical reaction, so I’ve never had my ears pierced. Rings are the least offensive – I’m wearing my wedding ring – but I’d be hard pressed to touch anyone else’s.
Dining with a friend who might be distractedly fiddling with her necklace at the table can feel excruciating as I inwardly gag at the way the chain crinkles against her skin. I ruled out dates and Hollywood crushes based on whether they wear a necklace.
I’ve also had genuinely terrifying nightmares about people I love – my dad, my husband – deciding, out of the blue, to start wearing necklaces.
Even watching TV can be an ordeal if someone is wearing a lot of bling. The BBC adaptation of Sally Rooney’s bestselling novel Normal People was particularly difficult because Connell, one of the main characters, wore a chain so popular it spawned a hashtag, #connellschain, his own Instagram page with 155,000 subscribers and numerous newspaper articles with offensive photographs. I only watched one episode.
Mention it and people laugh. After all, it’s not like jewelry can kill you in the same way that, say, spiders, snakes, or heights — the most common phobias — might.
But curiously, it is always the same survival instinct which is at stake, explains Paul Salkovskis, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oxford. “Phobias are anxiety disorders, and people are phobic of spiders, snakes, and heights almost certainly because there’s an evolutionary imperative around it,” he says. “These things are dangerous for us, but this knowledge is not innate: anxiety will usually develop through observation – you may see your mother terrified by a spider and you will bond her with fear.
“The feeling of disgust that people feel [about jewellery] is linked to the idea that it could be contaminated, either because it sits on other people’s skin, through piercing holes, or because there are tiny holes in the chains themselves that could harbor contamination. It makes sense to want to steer clear of gross things.
Victoria Gregory’s first memory of her jewelry phobia was receiving a silver chain with a mother-of-pearl dolphin pendant from an aunt at Christmas, when she was eight years old. “Most kids would have found it adorable, but I felt this fear about wearing it,” she recalls. The 40-year-old from Lincolnshire wears only her engagement ring and jokes about her partner saying that “if he ever wants to break up with me, he just has to start wearing a chain”.
“Honestly, someone could be the most handsome man in the world – even Brad Pitt – but if he wore a chain I would find that repugnant and want him to go away,” Victoria says. “I just can’t stand the thought of it happening on their skin or touching my skin. It makes me vomit – it’s a physical feeling of revulsion.
“My nine-year-old desperately needs to get her ears pierced, but I told her she had to wait until she was 12 to put them on herself because I couldn’t do it.” I can sympathize. My eight-year-old daughter has been known to chase me around the house with the silver chain she received as a gift.
The idea that this could be linked to contamination fears is fascinating to Victoria as she runs her own cleaning business. “I don’t suffer from anxiety, but I have to vacuum my house before I leave in the morning, and if I couldn’t, I’m desperate to come back and do it,” she says. “I can’t sit down in the evening until the plates are gone. I like clean things. But I would never link this to an aversion to jewelry.
Natalie Oxford, from London, has the same reaction. The 39-year-old says she feels “disgust and hatred” towards jewelry, especially if it’s gold. “The dangling stuff gives me goosebumps,” she says. “It’s hard to explain, but I feel sick and I want it to go away. If a friend is wearing something, I just hope they don’t touch me when I go to hug them. My family and friends don’t know how bad it is. It’s a weird thing to hate, so I keep it to myself.
There is little agreement among experts on how phobias develop, but they usually start in childhood with a traumatic moment or a fright. Most people, like me, will have no memory of what that triggering moment was.
“They are exacerbated by running away from the problem,” says Trilby Breckman, who runs the charity Triumph Over Phobia UK. “The discomfort you feel is adrenaline rushing and your body activates its fight or flight mechanism. Your head might say it’s just a necklace, but your body thinks you’re in a dangerous situation. and that you must escape.
So when does an aversion become a total phobia? “You might start out feeling uncomfortable around a friend wearing a necklace, but if it then keeps you from seeing that person — or going out at all — it turns into a phobia,” she says.
The good news, however, is that these phobias are easy to treat – in fact, they are among the easiest anxiety disorders to solve. “You can recover from any phobia, but it takes hard work,” says Trilby. “Because you have to face your fear. And that’s the one thing you really don’t want to do.
So am I walking away from this summer’s love affair with jewelry (shivering inwardly every time a friend kisses it…or me), or am I feeling the fear and do I tie the collar anyway? Maybe I’ll just hang in there for the colder months where jewelry isn’t as exposed or in contact with skin (yuck!) and hope the summer of 2023 is a little less blingtastic.
HOW TO TREAT PHOBIAS
By Paul Salkovskis, Professor in clinical psychology at the University of Oxford
Exposure is the key to overcoming phobias. It could start gradually by talking about the thing that scares you, then maybe putting a trigger object – a cartoon image of a necklace, for example – in the same room as you.
It’s about helping people understand first, then when you’ve prepared yourself in the proper way, you can slowly expose yourself to reality, then touch it. It is a kind of comprehensive cognitive-behavioral therapy that takes about three hours to completely get rid of the phobia.