Preprint / Version 1

Open Anthro Vol 10-2 Skin



Open Anthropology, Biological Anthropology, biological evolution, culture, cultural anthropology, skin, Work in Skins


Michael C. Ennis-McMillan, Skidmore College

Cathy Lynne Costin, California State University, Northridge

Skin is a remarkable feature of the human body, providing every individual with an outer layer of soft tissue that protects internal organs and other tissues. People also rely on sensory aspects of the skin to feel external stimuli, from textures and heat to injuries and disease. In addition to its biological qualities, the outer layer of skin (i.e., the epidermis) is a principal visible aspect of the human body, influencing how others perceive an individual’s identity and presence. As we look at each other and touch each other, we draw conclusions about one another. The visible quality of skin allows people to interpret it’s features such as color, texture, decorations, blemishes, and diseases to make judgements about a person’s physical well-being and social identity, including age, gender, ethnicity, occupation, and social status. As happens with any material aspect of human life, people interpret the meaning of skin’s physical properties to guide social interactions. Likewise, individuals care for skin, reveal skin, and decorate skin in ways that affect social perceptions. Skin turns out to be a fundamental way humans embody social and cultural experiences in the world.

In an earlier issue of Open Anthropology, Sallie Han and Jason Antrosio (2018) reviewed anthropological perspectives on how humans transform body hair to create and express social identities. They note that “hair care demands the time, effort, and knowledge of others as well as one’s self.” Diverse forms of styling hair, removing hair, and covering hair across time and space show how humans use visible aspects of their bodies to exchange ideas.

Inspired by Han and Antrosio, we have curated the work of anthropologists who explore various aspects of human experiences with skin. When we began organizing this issue, we expected to find articles exploring lighthearted aspects of human skin, especially related to playful skin decorations. We found, however, that relatively few articles in AnthroSource explored cultural aspects of skin per se, including how people regard “natural” and transformed skin as aspects of everyday life. The ordinariness of skin, in some ways, may pose challenges for exploring how people embody cultural differences. Daniel Miller (2010) calls on anthropologists to interrogate the ordinariness of some dimensions of culture in a globalizing world. He explores the anthropology of blue jeans, noting how the ordinariness of denim allows members of immigrant communities in London to create a shared embodied sense of social belonging. Likewise, our selection of articles on the anthropology of skin reveals how a seemingly ordinary, visible aspect of the body touches on serious subjects deserving of deeper reflection. Like other material practices for presenting the body in everyday life—styling hair, wearing clothes—skin practices express individual perspectives and social values. The anthropologists in this collection demonstrate that the human experience with skin is much more than a superficial or “skin deep” topic. Rather, skin is an integral, visual aspect of being human, implicating critical questions about individual identity and social belonging.

In all social groups, local cultural and aesthetic values influence how people reveal and conceal skin, thereby influencing social interactions. Because skin is visible to both an individual and others, people interpret the meaning of skin’s natural qualities as well as those altered by injuries or medical procedures. People also intentionally modify their skin’s appearance with cosmetics, tattooing, scarification, and other forms of body ornamentation as “a way to use the body to comment and act on the world” (Rosenblatt 1997, p. 300). The anthropologists in this collection demonstrate how human skin experiences involve an interplay of the malleable qualities of the skin with human perceptions of self and other.


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