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

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Our skin carries so much complex and ambiguous meaning. By definition it is superficial, but our experience of it is profound. It is the border of the body, but also porous and easily breached; 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 that 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’s these “strange and wonderful” and often-contradictory associations towards which Phillipa McGuinness is gesturing with the title of her second book: skin deep may well suggest just the surface level, but skin is also important enough that it “makes us who we are”.

It’s a sizeable claim, at first glance, but it is backed up in no small part by the sheer breadth of McGuinness’s research, with chapters on anatomy and dermatology, cosmetics and tattooing, cancer, skin hunger, racism and whiteness. The fields of expertise she draws upon are equally wide-ranging, and McGuinness brings these different kinds of knowledge into contact with each other with energy and skill: scientists sit beside historians beside authors; she speaks to activists, geneticists, YouTubers, cultural theorists, anthropologists, and clinicians of both wellness and medical training.

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

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

Young woman with sunburned shoulder at the beach
Two-thirds of the Australian population is affected by skin cancer of some kind. Photograph: Joel Carillet/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Yet skin cancer has also been the focus of “one of the most effective public health campaigns in history,” McGuiness writes – and the full effect of this messaging will only become apparent across this coming decade, as the first children born since the campaign started in 1981 turn 40, the age at which many skin cancers will begin to form.

There could easily be an entire book written on this topic alone – which is the case for many of the chapters in Skin Deep, which is something of a mixed blessing for the book as a whole. It is, of course, integral to the book’s expansive and always interesting enquiry – but it also means that the book occasionally feels unfocused or hurried in some sections, especially towards the final chapters.

There is so much within Skin Deep, though, that is fascinating and deftly handled. McGuinness has a remarkable ability to write about scientific concepts and processes in a way that is accessible and lucid, and deploys her cheeky, geeky sense of humour, usually in swift asides, to offset some of the book’s more difficult material. Her discussion of race, without which any book about skin would be glaringly incomplete, is skilful without being showy, drawing together genetics, colonial and political history, and anti-racist movements, all the while largely (and quietly) foregrounding the words of people of colour .

McGuinness states in her introduction that she considers the “quest to make sense of skin” to be a “moral one”, because it touches on so many bigger structures – racism, patriarchy, ability and age – and our conceptualisations of self, community, and public. It is a “contact zone” – that is, a concept all the more charged when contact can no longer be unthinking or taken for granted. McGuinness’s natural inquisitiveness, and her ability to make the most familiar topics feel fresh, make her explorations always fascinating and full of marvel.



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