Deeper Than Skin

Miriam Sadler is a second year International Relations and Arabic student. When not memorising her verb tables, she enjoys British TV, eating bagels and the never-ending quest for the perfect hand cream.

I’ve always been obsessed by skin. Obsessed by the lengths we go to preserve it and smooth it. The skin is flexible one minute, taut the next. The skin is the largest organ of the body, fighting pathogens, cuts and bruises. The skin is your first defender, your protector.

I’ve always been obsessed by my own skin. I could stare at every imperfection for hours. Skin disease does that to you; my mum always told me it would clear up if I just stopped looking at it. I find it mesmerising; my skin is my story.

Other people have always been obsessed by my skin. Among them, the boy in grade seven who wouldn’t let me touch our project without a medical glove, the doctor who told me my skin was ‘actually pretty gross’, the customer who asked if it was ‘hygienic’ for me to be serving food.

Skin conditions are by no means invisible and in fact, visibility is a crucial problem in the dialogue on skin. What makes people seem so cruel in their response is the mechanical recoil. People are always staring. They look disgusted and expect explanations. Although variations on the ubiquitous ‘what’s wrong with your skin?’ are always welcome, the constant offering of cures can be just as harmful. I have had a teacher hand me a disintegrated wrapper from a ‘seaweed soap’ that she swore would solve all my problems, humiliating me in front of my class.

And perhaps the worst, ‘my brother had eczema when he was younger and he grew right out of it.’ This comment infantilises skin conditions into some kind of childhood ‘phase’. Whilst I’m over the time in my life spent listening to Nirvana, I’m fairly sure eczema and psoriasis are here to stay.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, skin conditions and invisible illness go hand in hand. The skin is a canvas for what’s going on inside and nowhere is that more telling than with the skin. I have psoriasis and eczema; but I also have fibromyalgia, carpal tunnel and mental health issues. My pain affects my skin and vice versa. At the moment, I have eczema on my eyelids which lets me know I’m tired. I just lost someone and my psoriasis flare is my body reminding me that my nonchalance is just an act. My skin is the only way of telling the outside world that I’m suffering.

Too often, however, people can’t see that this requires holistic consideration. Doctors throw steroids and medication at me. These same doctors are sceptical that fibromyalgia even exists or that I’m ‘old enough’ to have carpal tunnel, let alone that there can be any link between chronic illness and skin conditions.

We need to change the way we talk about skin.

What these doctors should say is ‘your skin tells me you’re in pain, what can we do for that?’

People with skin conditions are working tirelessly. They have heard of every treatment and tried every miracle diet. For all these people, there isn’t necessarily a cure and there is definitely not going to be that day where they wake up and have magically grown out of it. Often, they are dealing with something chronic internally; maybe their joints are stiff or their nerve endings on fire. They don’t have to tell you what’s going on with their skin. They don’t owe you any explanation as to why they need mobility assistance one day and not the next.

And if they do want to tell you, listen. The most relieving thing for me to hear is ‘how are you going?’ rather than ‘that looks sore’. It is sore – let me tell you about it on my own terms. Recognise there’s a battle going on inside; whilst all you can see is something inflamed or maybe nothing at all, you are looking at some of the bravest people you will ever meet.