Skin Deep by Phillipa McGuinness review – a fascinating study of our largest organ | science and nature books

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OYour skin carries so many complex and ambiguous meanings. By definition it is superficial, but our experience of it is profound. It is the boundary of the body, but also porous and easily pierced; it is what others first see of us, the part of our physical selves that we present to the world, and also where we register this world, touching and being touched, in return. It is a visible site of oppression with a long history and continuing legacy, a marker of many kinds of privilege – but also an organ like any other.

It is these “strange and wonderful” and often contradictory associations that Phillipa McGuinness points to with the title of her second book: deep skin may well suggest just the superficial level, but skin is also important enough that it “does of us what we are”. ”.

It’s a big claim, on the face of it, but it’s backed up much of it by McGuinness’ breadth of research, with chapters on anatomy and dermatology, cosmetics and tattooing, cancer, hunger for skin, racism and whiteness. The fields of expertise that she draws on are just as varied, and McGuinness brings together this different knowledge with energy and competence: scientists rub shoulders with historians alongside authors; it is aimed at activists, geneticists, YouTubers, cultural theorists, anthropologists, and clinicians in wellness and medical education.

This broad, even eclectic curiosity is one of the strengths of Skin Deep, in particular because it so often reveals similarities of understanding or fascination under the very different purposes, approaches and even languages ​​of all these fields. This is also reinforced by McGuinness’ careful inclusion of ordinary voices who have (pardon me) skin in the game: people whose lives have been affected by severe, chronic eczema, for example, or melanoma, by prejudice and racist prejudice, or who have altered their skin to change the way they are perceived.

Some of the most striking elements of the book are devoted to skin cancers, where McGuinness examines the extent of the problem in Australia. The statistics she includes are truly terrifying – two-thirds of the Australian population are affected by skin cancer, and the national prevalence of melanoma here is 12 times higher than the global average. (As a redhead, I’m now convinced that melanoma will be my cause of death, RIP me.)

Two-thirds of the Australian population are affected by some type of skin cancer. Photography: Joel Carillet/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Yet skin cancer has also been the subject of “one of the most effective public health campaigns in history,” writes McGuiness – and the full effect of this message will only become apparent over the course of the next decade, when the first children born since the campaign began in 1981 will turn 40, the age at which many skin cancers will begin to form.

There could easily be an entire book written on this one topic – many of Skin Deep’s chapters are, which is kind of a mixed blessing for the book as a whole. This is of course part and parcel of the book’s in-depth and always interesting investigation – but it also means that the book sometimes feels blurry or rushed in certain sections, especially towards the final chapters.

There’s so much in Skin Deep, though, that’s fascinating and skillfully handled. McGuinness has a remarkable ability to write about scientific concepts and processes in an accessible and lucid manner, and deploys his cheeky, geeky sense of humor, usually in quick asides, to make up for some of the more difficult elements of the book. . His discussion of race, without which any book on skin would be patently incomplete, is deft without being showy, bringing together genetics, colonial and political history, and anti-racist movements, while largely (and quietly) foregrounding the people’s words. of color.

McGuinness states in her introduction that she views the “quest to make sense of skin” as a “moral issue” because it touches on many larger structures – racism, patriarchy, ability and age – and our conceptualizations of self, community, and public. It is a “contact zone”, that is to say a concept that is all the more loaded as the contact can no longer be thoughtless or acquired. McGuinness’s natural curiosity and ability to breathe new life into the most familiar subjects make his explorations always fascinating and full of wonder.

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