Skin. At roughly 20 pounds and 16% of your body weight it is the largest organ in the human body. It grows with us, stretching and expanding to cover the vast crevices and sinews within. It clings to our mass and stays with us, it adapts with our losses, our extensions, our embellishments. It is our ‘forever piece’, like that trusty pair of leather boots or favourite pair of jeans. It rarely gives way and it remains, embracing our bodies until the very end. The skin is a moving instrument, vital to everyday life and vitality. It is fragile – the cracks in the parched, overworked hands, the flush from the heat, the pallor of an ailment, all visible on the skin.
The remnants of a heart attack or stroke are not palpable on the surface of the skin. As I write this it is 1.27am and I am lying in a hospital bed from a suspected burst ovarian cyst. Yet, one cannot glean the deep distress in my belly from the outside, perhaps apart from the scrunched skin of my brow when the painkillers wear off.
Despite its primary duty being to protect and shield us the skin is incredibly fragile. Though the skin is elastic it is tender, if overstretched it is wrought by stretch marks, imprints of the skin strained. The skin is susceptible and easily fraught by disease and affliction, tormenting the delicate surface of the body. From the slight to the severe, skin degrades and renews and is forever active. Having dealt with vitiligo since childhood I’m always interested in how the body’s ailments manifest themselves physically. The skin becomes so easily medicalised – from a patch of eczema to skin cancer – everyday we tote around mediums for which we can diagnose.
Peaches: delicious and succulent, an emblem of hazy summers and an object closely associated with bruising. More recently its corresponding emoji connotes images of bums, because why not?
For something so ubiquitous, so average, bruises are extraordinarily gory, caused by internal bleeding under the skin and burst capillaries – are my italics showing how much I’m shuddering? – the very bodily vital processes that keep us alive are working closer than we realise. It is easy to forget just how energetic our bodies are until you knick your leg shaving in the shower at 9am and it’s still bleeding at 11pm… But of course bruising can connote so many different social meanings. If you see a woman with vast bruising on her body your mind rings domestic violence; as a woman who, despite possessing the higher cognitive abilities of an adult human, walks into doors/walls/lampposts/trees/etc. at a comical rate even a small bruise raises eyebrows. The relation between woman and bruise has become so common in society that television networks offer handy makeup advice for covering them, and not in an actually-this-is-a-vital-government-funded-PSA way. The skin, just performing its basic function to protect us, becomes the foundation for a social outcry. But, of course, the thing about bruises is that they fade. The skin, the capillaries, the blood vessels all renew and generate fresh new skin to bolster. And skin being skin, much like our handy makeup tips above, can be covered and transformed; sure you can probably mask a bone sticking out of the skin with an elaborate textile concoction but we all know about the Elephant Man…
So, here’s how to become a social pariah: be different from the assumed norm. While I am writing within the framework of ‘the body in pain and torture’ I can’t help but think that associating the skin with physical pain and torture is too easy, masochist I am. Everyone has experienced the overnight rupture of a ghastly spot the day of an important event, it’s basically what scholars are referring to when they discuss the human condition. The physical pain manifests itself as minor, but the emotional pain is frankly Herculean. My aforementioned trials and tribulations with vitiligo haven’t caused me pain physically, but the accompanied anguish is not forgotten. OK, so Joseph Merrick probably did experience considerable physical pain but his emotional state stemming from his condition shouldn’t be disregarded.
The OG of skin manifesting itself as social stigma is leprosy. Go and live in a secluded colony and wear a bell to inform people of your arrival because the concept of a harmonious and accepting society is too arduous. The Biblical perception is that leprosy is unclean, both physically and morally, and that the afflicted is being actively punished by God for their sins. In reality, leprosy is less infectious than the common cold but medieval understandings of health were not that advanced…
Socially, many feared lepers but less for their disease and more for the presumed notions of immorality. Because of this moral stigma methods of treatment were both physical and spiritual in nature and leprosariums were established under the scope of the influence of the church. Though it seems to have unfolded itself as a disease of the past, leprosy still survives and with it, the stigma. Ostracisation, loss of employment and expulsion from family and society are all endemic in the developing nations where leprosy prevails, these fears manifest as a delay to diagnosis and treatment thus making the condition worse. To avoid these is to hide – literally, in the shadows, and by veiling the body. Again, the conception of materially masking the body is prevalent in leprosy. To shield is intrinsically intertwined in protecting yourself from the gaze of others, yet protecting the sensibilities of the others’ gazes – the eternal paradox.
The seminal 1963 Persian documentary film, The House Is Black, opens with, ‘On this screen will appear an image of ugliness… a vision of pain no caring human being should ignore.’ And yet, throughout time and place we have and still do.
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Leprosymission.org.uk. (n.d.). What Is Leprosy? | About us & leprosy | The Leprosy Mission. [online] Available at: http://www.leprosymission.org.uk/about-us-and-leprosy/what-is-leprosy/ [Accessed 25 Mar. 2017].
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