Wearing Skin

I remember being nine, putting on a sparkly orange costume with fluttery blue chiffon strips for fins, and proclaiming that I was a fish.

It was for the annual showcase put up by my dance school every December; that year the theme was underwater fantasy. I remember buzzing with excitement every time we had to put our costumes on, even just for fittings and dress rehearsals. I remember feeling as if I had stepped into the skin – scales? – of a colourful, sparkly, little fish every time I stepped into that costume, as if I had left my human body and had really, truly, become part of the swimmingly wonderful underwater world.

As I think back on that memory, my flighty, naïve, nine-year-old observations about identity and the self seem to hold so much more weight now, waterlogged. The word ‘identity’ is so heavy. At age twenty, I no longer believe that I am a fish, yet I find myself with only more unanswered questions about identity, and the meanings behind that word.

Recently I watched a film by Ben Aston about a man who took his skin off for his girlfriend, because he loved her and he thought – they thought – that it was what she wanted. She thought it was beautiful; she could see all of him.

Yet I wonder, could she really see him; was she really seeing his ‘true self’? As the days went on, the man seemed to speak less and less; it was unlike him, he who “loved words, loved using different ones to say the same thing again and again until he was sure he was fully understood. But he either had less to say now, or he felt that he was already saying it.” As the silence grew and the heap of bloodstained sheets on the floor piled higher, their relationship started to crumble. I think there is a certain romanticism in the idea of shedding one’s skin, of baring one’s soul, so to speak, in the name of true love. I do not think it is necessarily healthy.

There is this constant talk about finding one’s ‘true self’, one’s identity, as if it were something to be found on a scavenger’s hunt. There is this unshakeable notion that you have to dig deep, beyond skin and sinewy flesh, to find the ‘self’ embedded deep within the sticky crevices of the steady da-dump da-dump in the cavity of your heart. There is this idea that identity, when finally found, is something beautiful and fragile and untouchable, to be cradled in your palms like a precious glass box. Yet, what if you dig and dig, like the man and woman in the film, but the ‘self’ is still nowhere to be found? If not under the skin, then where is identity?

I like to think my nine-year-old fish-self had it right all along: identity is not something to be found, but something to be made and expressed and performed, and skin, amongst other things (like a sparkly fish dress), is a costume we use to perform identity. From the Hagen tribal peoples who colour their skin with myriad hues to the teenage girl applying mascara for the first time, as the anthropologist Marilyn Strathern wrote: “the skin is the point of contact between the person and the world.” People like to talk about wearing hearts on sleeves; I am unsure how I feel about that – did you see what happened when he in Ben Aston’s film literally wore his heart on his sleeve? I suggest we all just wear our skin, in whatever way we want to. Identity, it seems, is not so much under the skin as it is on the skin and throughout the body. Identity, it seems, is not so much static and unmoving, boxed up and sitting pretty on a shelf – it is in constant flux, in constant performance.

I think tomorrow, I might just be a bird.

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Full-time couch potato and part-time functioning human, Kay Min occasionally finds the motivation to write something worthwhile. Her interests include travelling, photography, HBO, and the wonder that is the Internet. While not preoccupied with any of the above, she is also pursuing a bachelor’s degree in anthropology.