When I was young, I had perfect skin. It meant nothing to me-- in fact, it had absolutely no currency in my life, was sort of an albatross that made it nearly impossible for me to become a punk-rocker outcast-type. My older sister had acne. She also had a slew of boyfriends and hiked her skirt way up when we left the house for school. I wanted her skin. She hated me for mine, and I would have traded in a second. Acne would make me look older-- as would braces on my teeth, I thought. People commented on my skin-- aunts and cousins--- the doctor. When I went to buy make-up, even as a woman, the cosmetics salespeople would remark-- why do you need make-up? You have perfect skin. Lloyd Cole had a song about this. I did nothing to deserve it-- ate plenty of chocolate and fries and smoked cigarettes-- but it remained, as it was. Beauty's only skin deep, my mother used to say, and despite my flawless facial surface, I still believed my sister was way more attractive.
In the office of my Primary Care physician, a woman sits at the front desk and does intake. The right half of her face is horribly deformed, as though it was burned or blown off in an explosion. She is in her late 30's and it's tough to look at her. She has no functioning eye or mouth; the left side is marked with some kind of warty growths, but somewhat normal. Her voice is steady and courageous and sweet; if I were blind I might imagine her as beautiful. I commend my doctor for hiring her because she is unsettling, physically. As for her dignity-- I cannot say enough. She is well dressed and stylish from the neck down. Her hair is neat and pretty; her hands are lovely and efficient.
When my son was born, he was adorable and perfect. I couldn't stop admiring him, especially since I felt I didn't deserve to have this baby; I hadn't planned this, and my lifestyle for the first 3 months of pregnancy was a little crooked and a-maternal. His infant skin was so tender he couldn't tolerate any animal products-- wool, fur-- anything besides soft natural cottons. It was as though his surface was a metaphor for my heart; here I was-- a new mother-- a protector-- and suddenly I felt stripped and raw and on the verge of not just tears but utter emotional collapse at the slightest hint of tragedy or sadness. Maybe this is what they call postpartum depression. I was a single mother and utterly enchanted with my baby; there was absolutely no room for self-inspection or analysis. I was too busy trying to remember all the little infant things I had never learned and too absorbed in managing his care while I worked and kept my life on the level. But in caring for another being, I learned the depth of compassion.
As a young woman I fell in love with a black man. Our attraction had nothing to do with color, and his strangeness had more to do with cultural rather than racial differences. Sometimes at night, I awoke and admired the beautiful contrast of his dark, strong arm draped across my body. His skin had a different feel and smell and taste. In those days, some people in some locales didn't appreciate our marriage and our presence as a couple. The differences fascinated me; in the end we separated, but we both learned things about appearance and acceptance.
My skin is no longer perfect; few things about me are pretty; we enter the autumn and winter of our lives and our human foliage begins to fall away. Many of my women friends fight this process with injections and treatments; their medically-enhanced beauty is truly skin-deep and temporary, but it suits them, and it doesn't bother me. Nor does the economic ability to do such things. Money, I have discovered, is a little skin-deep as well. It is temporary and may create a sense of security, but people still get ill and have accidents and mishaps, and while they may be comfortable and well cared-for, their lives don't seem to be more valuable. They do give more to charity-- as do people like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, etc… but this kind of billionaire philanthropy seems a bit skin-deep and cavalier-- it is acknowledged and rewarded, but do they suffer or sacrifice to do this? They all seem to drive expensive cars, live in enormous houses, collect things and wear rolexes. They do little more than balance their tax burden, while being applauded for stunning generosity.
As for my friend who is ravaged by cancer, she grows thinner every week. Her skin is translucent and stretched over the contours of her face in a way that is startling. She resembles an anorexic; her once long, graceful limbs are spindly and twiggy; the bones of her knees are knobby and prominent beneath her loose pants. I feel I can see through her skin into her soul; her veins are greenish and sickly. She is skeletal and taut-- both old and young, like an underdeveloped fetus. She walks with bitter resignation, daring anyone to comment. I told her she looked pretty the other day; she had on a purple knit cap and her features were feverish and her skin was flushed from the cold. She was furious and screamed at me… this is not a word that applies to her physical or mental state, she warned me. Do not use this language in my presence. I wept-- I am not tough-- I am permeable and fragile. I wear my heart everywhere; without tattoos, my skin betrays me, my tears are ready and I am unarmed. I will not tell her again that she has acquired this sort of porcelain-doll facade-- and while her eyes have lost their spark and are glazed and empty from pain and the drugs, there is a kind of quiet holy dignity in her long-suffering expression-- and after all the treatments, the side-effects and the rashes, ironically-- she has perfect skin.