Sunday, September 25, 2011

body politics:my skin

I am fascinated by my skin. I think it’s my favourite part of my body.

My fascination began when I was very young and someone told me I was black. It had never been a problem that I was black (in fact I saw myself as umXhosa and not black, but that was not the most important thought when I woke up in the morning). What became a problem was when someone attached a value judgement to the pigment of my skin. We had just moved to the suburbs (an area with more white families than black families at the time) and my sister and I were looking for friends. We approached girls who were our age and applied the same rules we used on the school playground when you wanted to spark conversation with someone, “can we play with you?”. The little girls were startled by the request. One of them ran inside her house and emerged quite soon after with a response “my mother says we cannot play with black children”. Crestfallen, I began to understand that there was something wrong with being black, if it meant people didn’t want to play with you.

I’ve carried my race with me the same way I have carried my skin; it’s not the most important part of who I am but it has helped form the perceptions people have of me. Being in my skin has meant that I’ve been labelled as black and female. Both seem to be a matter of biology but because of the world I live in, being black and female are not innocent labels. They are loaded with bitter-sweet stories.

One of the mantras I have used trying to describe my short journey of becoming has been “I am growing into my own skin”. This has helped me understand the importance of owning my body and the person within this body. This has been a tender balance between narcissism or self-indulgence and appreciating that I am not my skin, there’s more to me than the tangible attributes that people see with the naked eye.
Part of growing into my skin has been appreciating my growing body. A friend and I were recently commiserating about the struggle of finding magazines that speak to our experience as women (for her, a career women-mother-wife in her 40s and for me, a student in her 20s). One of the reasons I battle with magazines is the front cover: both the written and the graphic text of a magazine speaks to who the target market is. Yet even when the “cover girl” is black, there’s always something that says “this is not for you” because after the make up and photoshop, the woman looks like plastic. I think I would have related to “cover girls” like Dolly Ratebe on DRUM magazines in the 60s! The body of women in magazines is always reduced to weight and how to control that weight or how to make our skin lighter, rather than simply appreciating our health. A prime example-adverts about getting rid of stretch marks: surely I can’t be expected to have the body of a 12 year old as some who is 24, it’s just not practical for someone with my genes!

Another fascination with my body has been watching the scars from childhood wounds disappear. Every scar on my body has a story. The stories I have made up in my head have been confirmed by what I see on my skin, but growing older the skin changes, but what of the memories in my head? I recently noticed that a scar I had when I was 12 has completely disappeared but the memory of the burn and the healing process is still in my mind. There are also other scars I can’t explain, mostly because I don’t wish to replay the memory in my mind.

The healing process of the skin became more pertinent when I cut myself while playing chef and cooking dinner for friends recently. The small cut on my finger seemed to bleed endlessly and watching it heal could be a metaphor for something...perhaps life. The skin started healing itself without much of an effort (the plaster I put on obviously helped). Perhaps that’s part of what growth and healing are, simply letting things fall into place and watching them grow rather than being flustered by the blood and the pain that are always a part of the process.

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