Interpretive Skin

Feature Image Credit: Polly Nor Art

What is your body telling you? Are we in constant communication with our bodies? Commonly seen across self-health and ‘alternative’ health system narratives, ill-health can be reflected on the skin, such as in the case of Traditional Chinese Medicinal practice of skin mapping. As such, learning to ‘understanding’ one’s body is seen as empowering, as if you can learn more about yourself or others through ‘reading’ the skin. Can skin function as a canvas, representing identity and the self? I am particularly interested in how skin and what it is decorated by, can serve as a reflection of the ‘wearer’ and their lifestyle. How then, might ‘poor skin’, be reflective of poor habits or health?

Anthropologically speaking, this idea of the skin being a representative canvas of sorts, implies that it is constantly involved in a ‘communicative process’ between the ‘internal’ and ‘external’ self, that can then be ‘read’ by others. Drawing from notions of personhood, identity, and representation in the Anthropology of Skin, I’d like to explore Strathern (1979)’s idea of the self and self-decoration and Fisher (2002)’s work on tattoos as a process of communication with others through the skin.

Skin as an anthropologist’s map

Describing humans as the ‘self-decorating ape’, Dr. Jablonski describes skin as an “anthropologist’s map”, which allows the tracing of human history and evolution to reveal the social function of skin. We love to alter and adorn our skin, piercings, tattoos, make-up or surgery are all ways of making changes to memorialize events and announce identity, according to Dr. Jablonski. Therefore, skin is a canvas on which we can imprint certain messages about our history, but is ultimately representative of something relating to our identity and well-being, whether intentional or not. While theories of embodiment and phenomenology recognise the body as the forefront of our engagement with the world, we leave impressions on the world and the world on us, but these ‘impressions’ are also happening between the body and other bodies.

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I exist as I am

Tattooing, according to Fisher (2002), is a social and political symbol embedded with cultural meaning. They have multiple functions, allowing the display of style, individual identity, or group membership. The author semiotically situates tattooing as a signifier – the concept of body modification as the signified, and the ‘dis-eased’ body as the sign (ibid:102). Like most cultural practices, meaning surrounding tattooing is constructed socially and individually, and it is the negotiation between the two levels that reveal understandings of the body and skin on a micro-level. Fisher argues that as a social practice, tattooing represents a complex relationship between the physical and social body. While tattoos serve as an identity markers, they also inscribe the boundaries and possibilities of the physical body in very visible ways (ibid: 103).

This leads to the possibility of an antithesis between the body so decorated and the inner or whole person Strathern, 1979:254

External/internal dichotomy

In her ethnography of self-decoration and adornment in Hagen, Strathern teases out the dichotomy between the inner self and outer self (ibid: 255). While the skin is the subject for adornment in one sense, the ornaments do not symbolise the wearer’s strengths from outside sources, rather it is the inner self that becomes exposed on the skin (ibid:252). In contrasting the outer skin with the inner self, residents are able to attach their identities to their body and bring their inner selves into the outer world, through their skin on their bodies (ibid.). In the case of Mt. Hagen, self-decoration is not about the make up but the symbolism of what it highlights. In this ‘prestige-oriented society’, Strathern claims that self-decoration can act as a tool in bettering the capacity of social relations and forms of exchange through representing the self publicly.

Is the inside/outside dichotomy simply a matter of the private versus the social? Strathern, 1979:255

Mapping out the inside 

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Carrying on with Strathern’s idea of the inside/outside dichotomy and the capacity in which self-decoration has in social relations, I’d like to bring in the idea of acne and skin mapping as a way for skin to act as a communicative and representative canvas of health and inner turmoil. According to the Traditional Chinese Medicine practice of ‘skin mapping’, one can actually locate sites of inflammation and imbalance in the body simply by noting the location of your acne which correlates to a certain organ within the body. The mapping of acne is an interesting multi-layered practice involving two forms of communication similar to self-decoration practices in Mt. Hagen. That is between the inner and outer self, and between the individual self situated within society. As markers of health and the state of the internal body, acne can often act as a reflection of poor hormones, habits, or lifestyle – a sign of the dis-eased body? (Fisher, 2002).

Perhaps this holds more truth in ‘superficial’ settings, where the exterior self is acknowledged as an accurate or partial representation of the self. This stems from experiencing the world with rather than through the material body- reflective of cultural contexts where identity is fixed on what we are and how we look (Fisher, 2002: 103). Similar to tattooing, skin mapping is a cultural practice informed by meanings that are socially constructed (Fisher, 2002). Yet these meanings have the capacity to affect and shape your social relations within society, almost ‘speaking’ for and before you, and in many ways expressing things that would not be expressed otherwise (Strathern, 1979). In the case of acne, how might we see practices such as skin mapping a way to ‘read’ the skin and gather information about the self, while also involuntarily communicating meaning to others through the skin?

Works Cited:

Strathern, M. 1979. The Self in Self-Decoration. Oceania,49(4), 241-257.

Fisher, 2002. Tattooing the Body, Marking Culture. Body & Society8(4), 91–107.

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