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  • Published: 16 March 2022
  • ISBN: 9781760898731
  • Imprint: Vintage Australia
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 336
  • RRP: $34.99

Skin Deep

The inside story of our outer selves

A book about skin, that wonderful thing that covers our body, acting as both barrier and receptor to life.

This is a book about skin. The strange wonderfulness of our bodily covering. What happens to it when something goes wrong. How the world responds to imperfection and difference. It’s about how skin makes us who we are.

Skin serves as a barrier between us and the germs that would otherwise invade and destroy us. It regulates our temperature. Skin remains waterproof even while our entire epidermis replaces itself each month. The body’s biggest organ even has its own sub-set of organs – sweat glands, sebaceous glands and hair follicles.

Primeval, sometimes mysterious forces drive skin-to-skin contact, but erotic desire is but one of many deep-seated urges that make us want to touch the skin of another. Touch is how we express love and affection as well as darker, violent emotions.

Skin keeps the outside out and the inside in. You will intuitively compile information and judgements about a stranger based on their skin and the clothing that covers it. Skin shouldn’t give you the measure of a person but we function as if it does.

Skin Deep explores beauty, ageing, imperfection, health and illness, all of which are closely related to skin, and interrogates whiteness, both historically, structurally and through current notions of white fragility and victimhood. Paradoxically, skin is a barrier and a point of contact. It is miraculous, our biggest organ. It heals itself! It’s wafer-thin! Skin cells remake themselves!

Phillipa McGuinness has interviewed plastic surgeons, dermatologists, burn survivors, beauticians, melanoma sufferers, people who suffer from body dysmorphias, victims and perpetrators of racism, and all kinds of people who are and are not comfortable in their own skin, to write a book where science meets art and culture, history and politics. Philosophy too, given skin is the point where our self, and our self-perception, struggles with or embraces the way others see us, and the way we see ourselves.

  • Published: 16 March 2022
  • ISBN: 9781760898731
  • Imprint: Vintage Australia
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 336
  • RRP: $34.99

About the author

Phillipa McGuinness

Phillipa McGuinness is the author of The Year Everything Changed-2001, shortlisted for the Queensland Literary Awards and the Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature, and the editor of Copyfight. She has written for The Guardian, the Sydney Morning Herald, Griffith Review, Meanjin and Inside Story. A former book publisher, she lives in Sydney.

Also by Phillipa McGuinness

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Praise for Skin Deep

I loved this book. Skin Deep is a wild and wonderful ride from the outside in. I laughed and gasped with McGuinness as she explores, with characteristic wit and sympathy, the extraordinary world of skin, and in the end, I felt better about my own. It's for anyone who has ever blushed, itched, inked, sweated – hot or cold – or felt the wonder of another. McGuinness has gone deep under the skin in all its shades, conditions, marvels and misreadings to produce a sparkling and deeply sympathetic look below the surface into our deepest selves.

Anna Funder

Skin Deep is an insightful, witty polemic that shows what’s on the outside tells us as much about ourselves as what’s on the inside. From the cosmetic to the constructs of race, Phillipa leaves no pore unexamined in the multifaceted ways our skin defines us.

Larissa Behrendt

Intelligent and fascinating. An appropriately multi-layered cultural exploration of who we are. You won't think about skin the same way again.

Tim Soutphommasane

McGuinness is a confident, conversational guide, pulling research and references from interviews, historical records, personal experiences and social media, and threading them into an easy-to-follow narrative that will have you filing various things away for cocktail chatter with friends. Skin Deep is a welcome take on an all-too-frequently overlooked subject.

Jackie Tang, Readings Monthly

McGuinness uses skin as a springboard to explore a cross section of vital issues and ideas, ranging from racism to beauty, from cancer to loneliness. It's an ambitious task that McGuinness takes on with gusto and skill. The greatest strength of Skin Deep is the insights it achieves by blending stories with science. McGuinness peppers the prose with her dry wit, making Skin Deep a warm and accessible book. It's clear in every line that she has done her research and her curiosity and clear enthusiasm are contagious. Skin Deep is a thorough and varied analysis of something that is so crucial and visible, and yet remains unsung.

Elizabeth Flux, The Saturday Paper

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. McGuinness’ writing is witty, wise, and empathetic in equal measure.

Michael Hannan, Artshub

There are fascinating questions about this organ that operates 'out of our control'. Why can’t we tickle ourselves? How does sunscreen work? Are people who refuse to bathe better or worse off? Where is our thinnest and thickest skin? And how soon can new lovers say they have touched each other’s skin for the first time, given our epidermis sheds and reforms? The sexiness of skin receives due recognition, particularly via Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient.

Stephen Romei, The Australian

I am morbidly obsessed with this insightful, well-researched and considered book on that most visible organ that envelopes us as mammals. It's a fascinating read, and a very accessible one too.

Roaring Stories

The fields of expertise she draws upon are equally wide-ranging, and McGuinness brings these different kinds of knowledge into contact with each other with energy and skill: scientists sit beside historians beside authors; she speaks to activists, geneticists, YouTubers, cultural theorists, anthropologists, and clinicians of both wellness and medical training. McGuinness has a remarkable ability to write about scientific concepts and processes in a way that is accessible and lucid, and deploys her cheeky, geeky sense of humour, usually in swift asides, to offset some of the book’s more difficult material. Her discussion of race, without which any book about skin would be glaringly incomplete, is skilful without being showy, drawing together genetics, colonial and political history, and anti-racist movements, all the while largely (and quietly) foregrounding the words of people of colour. McGuinness’s natural inquisitiveness, and her ability to make the most familiar topics feel fresh, make her explorations always fascinating and full of marvel.

Fiona Wright, The Guardian

I’ve just finished reading Skin Deep. Phillipa effortlessly moves between science, philosophy, social commentary and holds a mirror up to some of the biggest issues involving our biggest organ – our skin. She does so with warm engagement and intelligent humour with the end result that you are subliminally educated and informed without actually realising it!

Professor Anand Deva BSc(Med), MBBS(Hons), MS, FRACS, Head, Cosmetic Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, Macquarie Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery | Surgical Infection Research Group

Phillipa McGuinness is an excellent writer and storyteller and in Skin Deep she takes the reader on a journey through the multifaceted dimensions of experience and the permutations of meaning associated with our skin. A powerful and challenging book that for the first-time focuses on skin itself in discourse rather than using it is a medium through which to discuss closely related, yet separate, issues of race and health. A beautifully written synthesis of knowledge . . . It should be a vital addition to the scholar’s shelf as much as it is to the casual, interested reader’s collection.

Thomas J. Kehoe, Australian Policy and History Network

Awards & recognition

Australian Book Design Awards

Longlisted  •  2022  •  Best Designed Non-Fiction Cover