Book review: Skin Deep, Phillipa McGuinness

A book about the largest organ in our body.

‘A microscopic view of moles and keratoses is only skin deep. To go beyond the surface, we must examine skin through a cultural lens as well.’

These two sentences represent the mission statement of Phillipa McGuinness’ Skin Deep, a book which investigates ‘the strange wonderfulness of our bodily covering’ and how ‘skin makes us who we are in ways we can, and cannot, control.’ 

Achieving something this broad in less than 300 pages while also avoiding hopeless generalisations might prove daunting to most writers. Yet McGuinness proves more than equal to the challenge. She does an admirable job of balancing the biological with the social, calling upon a wide range of reference points from dermatology, plastic surgery, cosmetology, public health, politics, literature, and activism (among many other fields) to figure out what our skin is and what it means. 

Some of her findings are bracing. After demolishing the erroneous yet all too commonly-held links between race and biology in chapter three, McGuinness spends chapter four outlining how these falsehoods were nevertheless used as justification for five centuries of European colonial atrocities. 

Read: Book review: Hard Knocks, edited by Fiona Scott-Norman

Changing tack in chapter five, she elucidates in painful detail how the Australian obsession with tanning is giving many of us skin cancer. It culminates in a visceral account of a man who developed melanoma so severe it metastasised into tumours in his lungs and stomach. By the man’s own account, this originated largely out of ‘one specific event’ from childhood in which he burned his back snorkelling without sunscreen. If, like this reviewer, you spent your misbegotten youth burning your own back on beaches across Europe and Southeast Asia, this chapter will make you want to hide in a cave and never face the sun again. 

This isn’t to suggest, though, that Skin Deep is one of those ‘raw, unflinching’ books you can only read on your emotionally strong days. Far from it. McGuinness’ writing is witty, wise, and empathetic in equal measure. Medical in-jokes (‘the collective noun for dermatologists is “a rash”’) and I-never-thought-of-that revelations (‘we feel our clothes when we put them on, but don’t notice their presence for the rest of the day’) are both native to her prose style. 

The same is true of endearing anecdotes like the ‘Baloo greeting’, named after the bear in The Jungle Book, an alternative to bumping elbows devised by a friend of McGuinness’. It ‘involves rubbing backs like Baloo does against trees’ with ‘quite a lot of contact facing in the opposite direction’. Everybody gets the therapeutic benefits of human-to-human touch, nobody gets COVID. Genius.

The only critical thing you might say about Skin Deep is that it doesn’t attempt a real conclusion. An afterword to bookend the preface would have been appreciated in place of the dashed-off pages at the end of the last chapter, which don’t succeed in tying the book’s many disparate threads together. 

This single shortcoming, after the gripping readability of the rest of the book, means Skin Deep really does leave you wanting just a little more. 

Skin Deep by Phillipa McGuinness 
Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 9781760898731
Format: Paperback
Pages: 336 pp
RRP: $34.99
Publication date: 1 March 2022

Michael Hannan has written and edited for artsHub, Express Media, and TEXT. He is currently a PhD candidate in literary studies at the University of Wollongong.