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The Secret Life of Skin

In: English and Literature

Submitted By maddawg
Words 2226
Pages 9
3. ‘The hallmark of the personal essay is intimacy’ (Lopate)
Write the intimate life of a chosen text using the thinking and themes of any three weeks of the course.

My skin controls me. It contains and constrains me, protects and projects me. It is a living coat spread out all over me without beginning or end. Seamless. Only through it can I feel and process the world. And it is through this coating that the world sees me. It is the screen on which social messages are displayed, thoughts are reflected.

My skin controls me: dictating much of what I do. I guzzle water and nibble on nuts apply potions and lotions, don helmets and hats: All at the behest of my skin. Drinking too much, sleeping too little, lying too long in the sun and I am compelled to feel guilty. Connor says ‘the skin is not a part of the body’ (Connor 2002, 4) and indeed, my skin is like a domineering despot. It petulantly exposes my neglect by painting dark circles under my eyes, smudging the glow and scattering blemishes. It is the reflection of my soul, separate but inseparable from myself - my ‘body’s twin’ (Connor 2002, 5).

It is this ‘twin’ (Connor 2002, 5) or my ‘immaterial, ideal, ecstatic’ (Connor 2002. 5) imagining of my skin that constitutes what Cooley described as a ‘looking glass self’. (described by Coser 1997) This concept states that ‘an individual’s self-conception result(s) from assimilating the judgments of their significant others’ (discussed by Mikala, 2012). What we see in this mirror is not our carefully considered actions and the complex thought process that leads us to take them; We only see this ‘shadow’ (Connor 2002, 5) which becomes more than simply the living tissue. It is branded with our outward identity. And so, how we perceive others to view us in turn influences how we see ourselves. This attitude is present without an actual witness though. The looking-glass self creates a sort of pan-opticon inside the self, where the projected judgment of others is ‘the supervisor’ (Foucault 1995, 208) and actions become always conscious, mediated. Certainly, I feel I am ‘ continually accompanied by (my) own image of (my) self’ (Berger 1972, 46). And so again my skin rules my actions and moreover, constructs my own sense of self.

Indeed, Joyce said ‘modern man has an epidermis rather than a soul’. While this is obviously a remark about the superficial nature of society today, it also mirrors the progression of thought on identity. Traditionally, identity has been thought of as ‘a “natural” and “eternal” quality emanating from a self-same and self-contained individual’ (Robins 2005, 173). This description could easily be that of a soul. Today however, identity is viewed as more fluid, ‘subject to continuous change and reconfiguration’ (Robins 2005,173). This echoes the constant cellular renewal of the skin. Furthermore, identity is now considered to be ‘instituted in particular social and historical contexts’ (Robins 2005, 173) this is also reminiscent of the skin’s vulnerability to external forces; I tan, I freckle, I age. And so, as modern men (or women) are defined by the ‘skin we’re in’ hence our identities are defined by where we live, what we do, what we have done, what we choose.

The skin’s complex role in identity is seen in the film Silence of the Lambs (1991). The killer wants to be a woman, and so methodically murders women and carefully removes their flesh in order to sew it all together to form female skin with which to transform his identity from maleness to femaleness. As if to drape himself in this female fabric will transform his maleness. This crossing of gender in the skin also reflects the diminishing and fluid nature of male/female in society, with men now having hairless skin, and anointing and caring for their skin in a fashion that was once considered a purely female domain.

Hence, the ‘skinscape is also a genderscape’ (Howe 2005, 36). The enduring concepts of women as objects and possessions, tie women and land together: something owned, something ploughed, something penetrated. These concepts are overtly sexist but as a female, I demonstrate the invisible weight of these ideas. I once had a honey-scented body lotion, and whenever I rubbed it on myself, I always indulged in thinking I was a ‘land of milk and honey’ this ‘turns (my)self into an object’ (Berger 1972, 47). I’m not alone in creating a metaphor of skinscape and landscape. Shakira (‘lucky that my breasts are small and humble / so you don’t confuse them with mountains’) and Neruda (‘When I look at the shape of America on the map, my love, it is you I see:’) are both examples. These metaphors are also carried into life, with countless cultures emulating aspects of their environment – even today in Western society’s, our obsession with willowy forms and tight ageless skin seems to be a mimic of a cityscape of skyscrapers and unwearing structures.

Just as there are public and private areas to a cityscape, there are more public and private areas of the skin and furthermore there are more public or more private parts of ourselves. The domain of personal and private thought has changed. Traditionally, the privilege of an intimate circle of friends and family our personal thoughts are now accessible to almost anyone through avenues like Facebook and Twitter. This intimate access to our selves is similar to the way bikinis and miniskirts have reformed acceptable areas of skin. Gone are the days when the sight of an ankle is a rare exposure. Interestingly, in both these forms of self-exposure it is only the parts of ourselves we choose to show that are broadcast. And so again by constructing a public self we form a private one.

And so, my identity is placed in my hands, to an extent. The ‘skin is the original parchment’ (Anzieu 1989, 105.) and it gives a short history of our heritage which can’t be obscured (excepting extremes like Michael Jackson’s skin, which did cast off evidence of his Negro heritage). This ‘original parchment’ (Anzieu 1989, 105.) is scribbled on throughout our lives. Scribbled on by the sun, the wind, by our diets and our habits. The first documents ever written were on the skins of animals, and our own skin documents our past experiences in laugh lines, freckles, scars and bruises. Stretched tight over a drum, skin can be given voice, and our skin shouts our emotions in blushes or blanches. Without our say-so our ‘body’s… shadow’ (Connor 2002, 5) casts us in a certain role, whether it be your race, your age or even your fleeting mood.

On the other hand, we carefully inscribe on our skin some of the things we want to say. We do this with makeup, fake tan, or tattoo needles. Weekly, I paint myself darker. Thursday night in the boarding house was a ritualistic ceremony of half naked girls painting each other Sublime Bronze. These habits grow into our sense of self. I now only really feel myself when I’m a little tan and when I am made-up. Made-up, the words themselves seem contradictory. However, Bakhtin said that ‘selves are constituted, or authored’ (Baxter 2004, 4) through our interaction with others. Further, another’s interaction with us is defined by how they see us. Therefore how we look, our skin, plays a huge role in how they will treat us, and in turn affect how our selves are formed. For me, this is captured in Blue Valentine (2010), when Dean says ‘in my experience, the prettier a girl is, the more nuts she is… It’s not your fault, everybody treats you different. Like you make jokes and people laugh anyway even though they’re not funny. That’s gotta make you nuts.’ And so, the importance of skin is realised, not just because of how others comprehend you, but how you will create yourself.

So why do so many want to indelibly write on their skins? To change it permanently, to inscribe a design or some words which will remain forever. These decisions never seem to take much time or consideration in people my age. ‘I was drunk’ seems to be a popular response when asking about a tattoo. From Papillon to Popeye to Angelina Jolie, tattooing has moved from the margins of society into coolness and now into mainstream. The choice to permanently change the surface of a skin in turn means less, now that there are more of them. My grandmother always looks at tattooed youths with heartbreaking pity. My mother is filled with fear and stern warnings on the error of inking the skin; I can pierce whatever I like, but a tattoo is a taboo in her mind. But, we all inhabit our own skins, I want to say to her. You have told me I have ‘a hide’ enough times, well the message stuck and so I have claimed my hide. Again the semiotic power of my own skin is revealed as a material to screen my identity to the world and to in turn reflect it back to myself. It is easy to grin at tattoos as a youthful bit of fun, but what would our skin advise? The purple ink sinking through layers. I wonder how many of my blasé friends’ thoughts will turn to lasers, when the novelty and the years of idealized recklessness fade, whether they will want to get back to a tabula rasa? Perhaps, though the tattoos will show themselves the person they once were, a sort of memento of themselves.

My skin contains me. It is the ‘borderland’ between the world and myself. In my opinion this is what to be content dans son peau really means, whether the borderland between self and non-self ‘grates … and bleeds’ (Anzaldua 1991, 3) or whether they coexist side by side harmoniously. It’s not my own skin I’m uncomfortable in, but the way my skin or myself fit with the rest of the word. I’m not happy with my skin, as it is, healthy but pale, or freckled. What it says naturally is not enough, so I try to perfect with exfoliators, moisturisers and serums and I painted over it, with fake tan and make-up. Trying to be someone else, or some perfect version of myself through it. I do all of this to coat myself in a confidence I lack. I achieve this metamorphosis, but it is not permanent. As the skin is continually renewed, so too is my natural timidity, which peaks from under a layer of bluster, like freckles under foundation. But, much as the skin’s regenerative process is impaired through age, so has my timidity been impaired, that coating of confidence begins to stick.

We are contained in our skin, confined to it. When looking at skin’s bearing on identity, we can’t deny our inescapable embodiment. A soul is considered immortal and hence almost independent of the body. An epidermis, however, is inescapably organic and perishable, living, with all that the word means; growing and changing, decaying and dying. This embodiment anchors us to the world. We aren’t given a Cartesian dualism. Instead, much as Midas is plagued by the unrealised pervasive nature of touch, we are present always in our skin, ‘a sense of soul which resides in the fingers’ ends’ (Serres paraphrased in Connor 2002, 5) Shylock should have considered this. He should have added a caveat to his demand of a pound of flesh, and asked rather to take a pound of soul. He is allowed his pound of flesh only if it can be removed without one drop of blood, an impossible task. This reflects our paradoxical bond with skin; removing it without a drop of blood can be conceived, but cannot be done, because our skin is dynamically self and something more than self.

And so, my skin simultaneously contains and connects me to the world. Touch is how we involve ourselves in the world and how we change it, but also how we are tied to it. The power of touch has been integrated into the lexicon of many languages. For example ‘She touched the hearts of many’ translates to ‘she affected many people’. Despite the powerful and pervasive nature of touch our need to touch is minimised in today’s societies. Doors open for you, shoes and concrete cocoon your feet from the earth, and televisions can be controlled with speech. Relationships that would have shrivelled and died long ago can be kept alive over the Internet. I have countless Facebook ‘friends’ who are distanced by oceans of space and totally different time zones, lifestyles and general interests, but remain however hollowly, friends. On the other hand, the simple fact of nearness is still too crucial in a more meaningful relationship to be made obsolete. This is acknowledged in new technologies like the hug shirt, which uses technology imbedded in the fibres to mimic a loved ones hugging style. And so, our sense of touch is being touched in new ways to meet modern man’s modern world.

It seems whatever way I look at it my skin is me, enveloping the letter on which my soul is inscribed. Sealed and addressed to the world.

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