Skin Deep: The Inside Story of Our Outer Selves

Phillipa McGuinness

Skin Deep: The Inside Story of Our Outer Selves
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Skin Deep: The Inside Story of Our Outer Selves

Phillipa McGuinness

This is a book about skin. The strange wonderfulness of our bodily covering. What happens to it when something goes wrong. How the world responds to imperfection and difference. It’s about how skin makes us who we are.

Skin serves as a barrier between us and the germs that would otherwise invade and destroy us. It regulates our temperature. Skin remains waterproof even while our entire epidermis replaces itself each month. The body’s biggest organ even has its own sub-set of organs - sweat glands, sebaceous glands and hair follicles.

Primeval, sometimes mysterious forces drive skin-to-skin contact, but erotic desire is but one of many deep-seated urges that make us want to touch the skin of another. Touch is how we express love and affection as well as darker, violent emotions.

Skin keeps the outside out and the inside in. You will intuitively compile information and judgements about a stranger based on their skin and the clothing that covers it. Skin shouldn’t give you the measure of a person but we function as if it does.

Skin Deep explores beauty, ageing, imperfection, health and illness, all of which are closely related to skin, and interrogates whiteness, both historically, structurally and through current notions of white fragility and victimhood. Paradoxically, skin is a barrier and a point of contact. It is miraculous, our biggest organ. It heals itself! It’s wafer-thin! Skin cells remake themselves!

Phillipa McGuinness has interviewed plastic surgeons, dermatologists, burn survivors, beauticians, melanoma sufferers, people who suffer from body dysmorphias, victims and perpetrators of racism, and all kinds of people who are and are not comfortable in their own skin, to write a book where science meets art and culture, history and politics. Philosophy too, given skin is the point where our self, and our self-perception, struggles with or embraces the way others see us, and the way we see ourselves.


How often do you think about your skin? Its biology, its cultural signifiers, its protective qualities and weaknesses? It’s the largest organ in our body (although this book taught me this is up for debate with some experts arguing for the mucosal lining of the small intestines instead – will Mucosa Es Su Casa be next on the nonfiction publishing block?), it’s the focus of a multi-billion-dollar industry, and with two in every three Australians diagnosed with skin cancer by the age of 70, skin is also a serious consideration in our country’s public health landscape.

Phillipa McGuinness is fascinated by skin, and has chosen the intimidating task of tackling this subject that seems to yield an almost limitless choice of avenues for interrogation. Over 12 chapters, McGuinness takes readers through a crash course on skin, from its biological features (you’ll come away from this knowing your keratinocytes from your melanocytes, your stratum basale from your stratum granulosum) to a short history of the field of dermatology, to an interrogation of skin, race and genetics, to her own experience with basal cell cancers and the development of Australia’s Sun-Smart campaign. There are also chapters on various skin conditions, the global skincare industry, how skin facilitates touch, the culture and history of tattoos and more.

It’s a lot to pack into 300 pages, and at times I felt myself wishing McGuinness would (forgive the pun) flesh out certain chapters and ideas in more detail. Overall, however, McGuinness is a confident, conversational guide, pulling research and references from interviews, historical records, personal experiences and social media, and threading them into an easy- to-follow narrative that will have you filing various things away for cocktail chatter with friends. Skin Deep is a welcome take on an all-too-frequently overlooked subject.

Jackie tang is the editor of Readings Monthly.

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