The Story of Skin
December 2013
illustration

“Dry Skin”
© 

When I was born, I was treated as a precious object. My parents held my head in the palm of a hand and caressed my face with the softest touch of a finger. They swathed me in soft cotton blankets, cradled me in the crook of an arm and gently rocked me to sleep. When I awoke crying in the middle of the night, they changed and fed me, all the while smiling and blowing raspberries on my stomach to soothe my anguish. There was so much love in my skin.

As a child, I fell in the garden and grazed my knees. My mother rubbed soothing balm and kissed away the tears that stung my cheeks. My father read stories to me every night before I slept. His hugs infused my skin with the curiosity of other worlds to which I travelled in my dreams. There was so much love in my skin.

A few years later, my skin began to change. Spots grew over my forehead, small breasts formed upon my chest, and blood seeped every month from between my legs. I felt abnormal and wouldn't let anyone near. My parents tried to reassure me that I was becoming a young woman and that my havoc-wreaking hormones would eventually calm down. I got angry and screamed at them; they didn't understand. How could they, when I didn't understand what the hell was happening myself?

However, they did not retaliate with anger. They simply waited, patiently, until I was ready to be embraced again and discover there was still so much love in my skin.

I grew into a young woman and continued to learn about the wondrous nature of my skin. The nervous excitement of my first red-lipped kiss with a boy at college, the sharp, cold rush of water when I dived into the swimming pool, the bewildered and profuse sweating on my first day at university. A few years later, I felt intoxicated by the musty heat of a rock concert, beads of water glistening on my arms as I danced with a young man in the crowd. And when we made love, I gasped in awe, despite my awkward limbs, at the capacity for my skin to feel such intense pleasure and communion with another. There was so much love in my skin.

If only this was the true story of skin.

Because, of course, it is not. Who experiences the life of their skin in such an idyllic way? The reality can, in fact, be harsh and to varying degrees. Parents with small babies get tired and worn out. They not only hold love for their children, but also have the practical responsibilities of working, earning money, buying food and clothes, and ensuring a quality education… as well as managing their own adult relationships with friends, colleagues, family and so on. When I was a child, my mother shouldered all these responsibilities for me and my three siblings on her own, without my father (who died when I was six). She did not always have the forethought to be affectionate, or infinitely patient. She had her own frustrations and there were times she was angry. She shouted, swore and occasionally hit us (admittedly, not always without good reason).

Our bodies carry memories that have no words. Not just our skin, but our muscles, nerves, blood, cells, every system; and particularly those memories of hurts and unexpressed emotions that we then post-rationalise in our minds.

The most important step towards listening to and being aware of our skin and body is to refrain from blame. I've learned this lesson over many years — not to blame either myself or my parents. When we are not aware, we abuse our bodies in so many ways; through obvious means such as drugs, alcohol, and food related diseases, and also the not so obvious, for example, tattooing, piercing, stress, aggression, sex, gossip, and so on. The list is endless.

From my massage training in 2002, I remember one lesson specifically. We were working in pairs and my partner, a fellow student, placed his hand in the small of my back and simply let it rest there. I felt a well of emotion rise to the surface and cried for half an hour. My partner held his hand for as long as I needed and I only realised much later, upon reflection, that I could not recall ever having been touched by a man with such gentleness and care. And this one experience gave me a whole new awareness of my communication with the men in my life. It was about creating a sense of respect and boundary within myself, where I had none before, and an intention that could not be described with just words.

When I give massage, my primary intention is to be present with my client. I intentionally do not use music in the sessions because I want to focus on accepting whatever their body presents in that moment, and to encourage them to listen to their own body; their skin, muscles, thoughts, pain. When we open ourselves to allow someone to touch us with as much care as my fellow student did, it is possible to heal the memories our bodies carry.

Because there is the potential for so much love in our skin.