You may be judged by its colour; but it is also your window into the world of emotions Skin. Was there ever a word with more resonance? I don’t think so. Think of the many ways we use it in our everyday vocabulary. I made it by the skin of my teeth. It’s getting under my skin. Beauty is only skin-deep (or not, if you are in a particularly profound mood). She’s only interested in saving her own skin. It’s no skin off my nose. He really does have a thick skin. I nearly jumped out of my skin. It is all about being comfortable in your own skin.
I could go on but then I would run out of space and where would we all be… There is a good reason why ‘skin’ resonates so deeply with us. It is the most visible thing about us. And every day of our lives we are judged by it. The brown man with the backpack who is pulled out of a security queue at an airport and questioned. The black man who is perceived as being so scary that people actually cross the road to avoid him as they walk home at night. The white woman who is leered at on the streets of an Indian city. Actually, scratch that. Any woman, no matter what her colour, is guaranteed to be leered at – or worse – on our streets.
But prejudice doesn’t stop at that. The colour of your skin is also seen as an indicator of your social and economic status. In India (and elsewhere in the East) a fair complexion is seen as a badge of pride, a sign that you are rich enough not to have to brave the sun; dark skin, on the other, marks you out as a lowly worker who has to scorch his skin to earn a living. It is not a coincidence that the Hindu caste system is classified on the basis of ‘varna’, which loosely translates as colour.
In the West, on the other hand, a pale, sun-starved complexion marks you out as poor and underprivileged. It means that you don’t have the money to lie around at the poolside or spend time on the ski slopes to work on your tan. The rich, on the other hand, take pride in their year-round nutty-brown complexions, which prove that they can holiday in the sun no matter what the season.
No wonder then that skin-lightening or ‘fairness’ creams are a multimillion business in the East while the tanning industry (which takes in everything from tanning sprays to tanning salons) makes a killing in the West.
Given all this, is it any surprise that skin is something we obsess about the most? We slather on SPF 50 creams to remain fair and lovely. We spray on tanning lotions to appear brown and healthy (and wealthy). We wax our skin to look smooth and hairless. We plump it up with creams, lotions and potions to make it soft and desirable. We attack it with anti-ageing gels, serums and treatments so that it retains that youthful gleam just a little bit longer.
But skin is a lot more than the cover we are judged by. It is also our window to the world of emotion. We crave the touch of a loving hand, the warm hug of a parent, the passionate kiss of a lover, the comforting embrace of a spouse as we lie in bed.
We use our skin to feel, to touch, to taste, to smell. The softness of a baby’s freshly-washed, powdered body. The feel of an elegant silk shirt as it caresses your body. The sweetness of the first lychees of the season that leave your tastebuds craving for more. The smell of petrichor as the first rains hit the parched earth.
Skin. It really is the key to life.
From HT Brunch, May 5
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