Humans really are just skin-deep

Heather Mallick explores a human obsession

They're an interesting couple, those Manitoba parents who sent their little daughter to school with white supremacist slogans written on her skin. All parents teach kids their beliefs but they're not dumb enough to get literal about it.

You're supposed to get under your children's skin, not on it. They didn't tell their child to urge the deaths of black people; they wrote it on her skin. It's weird, but it's significant.

Skin is the organ of neurosis. We think of it as simple, concealing a troubling collection of vulnerable internal bits, but in truth, skin is our obsession.

It, not the heart or lungs, is the most crucial to our psyche. Without feathers, scales or thick fur, our skin is our most vulnerable organ. How we regard it and what we do with and to it speak volumes about us.

The truth is, there's only so much you can do with skin and still manage to get a multibillion-dollar industry out of it. Just me by my lonesome, I wash — sorry, cleanse — exfoliate, moisturize, base-coat, powder, shadow, line, pluck, blend …

Manufacturers tell us that each bit of our skin requires a different product.

You think I'm making this up? A fine Vancouver importer named just shipped me some T. LeClerc makeup and threw in some specialty goods, including a German product called Gehwol Leg Balm. For when not just any old leg cream will do. It claims to "strengthen veins and prevent leg ailments." Have you ever seen a German leg? Bristling with health, I'll bet.

The Body Shop sells elbow cream, foot lotion and nail oil. It has a wonderful massage cream if you don't mind your bedsheets all slick and slidey the rest of the week.

So there's skin. And then there's skin.

It's just skin

Americans are congratulating themselves for having elected a "different" kind of president. They are referring to the colour of his skin, something this Canadian never remembers to notice. The fact that he's the first genuine quick-witted intellectual they've had in the office since John F. Kennedy doesn't register.

Buddy, it's just skin. Whether it's on my hands or my shoulder blades, it's still only dermal. Whether it's the new mocha or the old speckled white, it's still just presidential skin.

Gunther von Hagens' plastination of human corpses was a violation of human decency — there was no way any sane people consented to having their corpses turned into splayed human accordions, so we are viewing appalling desecrations — but neither governments nor viewers seemed to object.

That's because there's often no skin in a von Hagens. He peeled his dead humans and showed viewers  what lay underneath, and we have a morbid fascination that we attribute to our interest in health matters.

Ed Gein, the serial killer on whom the film Psycho was based, peeled his victims. He was all about skin, and that's what makes him among the most notorious of all killers. He took what was most personal to us, which is, strangely, the external material.

If beauty's only skin deep, and it's what's inside that counts, why did I just spend $250 on some T. LeClerc makeup? We are our skin, which is why we lift it, paralyze it, puff it out with Restylane and panic at its scarring.

Skin is in. Skin is it.

What brought me to this point was not my insomniac realization last night that if I used cheap Vaseline Intensive Care lotion, or indeed bacon fat, from my face to my toes, I might save thousands as well as shave a week a year off the time I spend applying geographically appropriate unguents.

It was an article in the Independent about the American artist Andrew Krasnow who makes sculptures out of human skin. He is once again to exhibit his new show in London, licensed by Britain's Human Tissue Authority.

A great taboo breached

Before the first Gulf War, Krasnow's human skin flags were banned from the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati by the likes of Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich.

In other words, a great taboo has been breached. Who even knew until now that it was skin, something we have on display every moment of our lives? Why skin should be suddenly be our most crucial organ I cannot fathom. But apparently it is.

When I saw Krasnow's U.S. map made of tanned skin (from whites, who Krasnow says have inflicted the greatest suffering upon the world), I was not sickened and enraged as I expected to be.

I was shocked, and then moved.

I damage my own skin every day — rose thorns, scratches, bruises, hangnails, rashes, paper cuts. And it hurts, often unreasonably so.

When we are humiliated, we feel as though the face we have prepared for the public has been ripped off. An insult feels like a slap. Our facial skin flushes with embarrassment.

Krasnow says his work is a "commentary on human cruelty and America's ethics and morality." To his critics, this sounds cheap and obvious. For obvious reasons, we don't claim a child could have done it, but it's what we mean.

But it is stunning. The Abu Ghraib photos were all about exposed human skin. The new photos that U.S. President Barack Obama has ordered concealed (he finds them "not particularly sensational") are about internal pain, about sexual penetration.

How we see and feel our own pain is best expressed by damage to human skin. I would not have predicted that the pain of others would be equally well-expressed. The patches of skin of Krasnow's American map are every sad thing in that nation, but they cover all six billion of us in scope.

We are insensitive, until we see human skin — our own thin nervy coat — and all the possibilities of pain inherent in it.