I suffered from psoriasis during my thirties, and always found that it wasn’t the bad skin that was the main problem, but what happened when I brought it into contact with other adults. It made me feel ugly, ashamed and even guilty – feelings I didn’t get with little children or animals. So I concluded that it was to a great extent our prevailing cultural values that evoked these painful emotions.
For a reason that I was keen to identify, people – including me – had this idea that bad skin equals bad person, or at least is the consequence of some thing you have or haven’t done. My flaky complexion was somehow my fault.
I surmised that we got this impression from the relentlessly negative portrayal of skin disorders in films, television, literature and art. In the movies the bad guys have, you’ve guessed, it, the bad skin.
Boogie, one of the villains in There’s Something About Mary, comes out in glorious hives. Howard, a sex pest and bigot in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, has a skin disorder. The baddies in Star Trek are so frequently covered in such malignant skin conditions that it’s surprising there wasn’t a dermatologist on the crew of the Enterprise (not that the crew themselves, with their satin complexions, would have needed one).
When psoriasis was mentioned in the press, it was always in the context of someone bad having it. I remember reading that it broke out on Jeffery Archer during his second trial, and that the militant leader and general homicidal maniac Jose Rodrigues of the Marxist Senderos Luminoso in Chile also had psoriasis.
I looked at every picture in the National Portrait Gallery and none featured a skin disorder. Even Lucien Freud, who is supposedly renowned for his searingly direct depictions of human bodies, never painted acne or psoriasis or eczema.
I am sure that feeling both sidelined and victimised by my own culture made me suffer more than I had to, and maybe even exacerbated my condition. My own turning point came when I went to a clinic on the Dead Sea where a lot of patients with, shall we say, very unusual skin end up. It was so liberating to be surrounded by their courage and laughter and joy, and to see so many sufferers who were really nice, positive, good people.
When I returned to Britain I decided that the most important thing that could be done to improve the life of people with what is termed – in a very skinnist manner, I may add – ‘bad skin’ was to try to create a narrative in which ordinary people, some even good, could be seen as having different skin from the average person. So I wrote the story of the Dead Sea skin people in a book called Sunbathing Naked.
It has not so far revolutionised attitudes, but I hope in some small way it has started the process.
This struggle to counteract the demonisation of us is a noble one, and is a path already hacked out by people of colour, by the disabled, and by gay and transgender people, all of whom have demanded that they not be depicted in a relentlessly negative manner, as that is a fundamental lie.
Now it is the turn of people with acne and psoriasis – and many of the other wonderful skin conditions that proliferate in any population – to stand up and fight back proudly. This is why the British Skin Foundation’s campaign by Rankin, the thinking man’s fashion photographer, is so welcome and timely.
In addition to Rankin’s powerful images, I would also like to see someone with acne as a regular in a soap opera. When you think about it, it is ridiculous that there aren’t any in EastEnders, particularly when you see the junk they eat in that café. Only by creating our own positive images and narratives can we hope to put a spring in the step and some pride back on the face of fellow sufferers.
Perhaps, one day, people will see our skins as they see lichen and moss and falling blossom from a cherry tree: beautiful. After all, ugliness, too, is in the eye of the beholder.
See the complete set of images at British Skin Foundation