Did you know that the skin is one of the largest organs of the human body, covering approximately 20 square feet in an adult?
Until researching for this column, I didn’t — or at least I didn’t remember these facts from high school science. I’m sure we learned it, but 20 years ago I wasn’t as enamored with the majesty of creation like I am now. As it turns out, the skin is fascinating.
The only outward-facing organ, the skin plays an integral part of human health and well-being and, according to my research with sites like WebMD, National Geographic, Stanford Children’s Health, The American Academy of Dermatology and The National Center for Biotechnology Information, and is classified into three layers: epidermis, dermis and hypodermis (also known as the subcutis).
These layers of skin have unique characteristics. The epidermis is the outermost layer we see on ourselves and others, but interestingly, is made of dead cells; our skin continuously regenerates and in about a month, the skin you currently see on your body will be new. This outer layer is an important part of the body’s immune system, acting as a first line of defense against irritants, allergens and germs.
The dermis contains sweat glands, blood vessels, lymph vessels, nerve endings, hair follicles and oil glands, making the middle layer a happening place for important bodily functions.
The bulk of the deepest layer of skin is made of fat and connective tissue but also contains additional blood and lymph vessels. The hypodermis provides insulation and protection to the body’s skeletal system.
One square inch of skin contains 650 sweat glands, 20 blood vessels, 60,000 melanocytes (these make melanin and give skin its color), and at least 1,000 nerve endings.
The skin packs a major punch, all within a few millimeters of thickness. Can you believe it? All those layers and functions are integrated in a space ranging from 0.3 mm around the eyes, to approximately 4 mm on the soles of our feet.
The skin is many amazing things — stable yet flexible, waterproof yet absorbent, a barrier of protection — but one thing it is not is thick.
This reality flies in the face of a common cliche: just have thick skin.
If I had money for the number of times I’ve been told I “just need to have thick skin,” I’d be a wealthy woman.
Sometimes this phrase is spoken as a hug of helplessness, as if to say, “I know it hurts. Hang in there.” It’s a sad state of team building for certain professions; a phrase full of nuance, comradery, encouragement and shared injustice.
Sometimes this phrase is used in a way to cut a conversation short, as if to say, “suck it up, buttercup.”
And sometimes it’s used as a way to justify bullying and abuse.
Anymore, with any form of its delivery, the phrase hits me in a new way. In the last months I’ve honestly faced the reality that I’m a normal person with normal skin. For me, this means that at its thickest, my skin is half the width of my pinkie finger. And with this facing of reality, I’ve also come to terms with the fact that because there’s an unspoken rule about the necessity of thick skin, my normalcy disqualifies me from a slew of roles.
Now, there is one loophole to this regular skin-thickness problem. Calluses. Remember how our skin regenerates within approximately a four-week period? Well, as a response to excessive pressure, rubbing and/or irritation, the epidermis speeds up the growth of new skin cells. However, the amount of skin that flakes and sheds remains the same, thus producing a hardened spot on the skin. Where an oyster takes an irritation and turns it into a pearl, our skin protects us by becoming callused.
And where a skin callus can help us withstand irritation of an ill-fitting shoe or playing a guitar, callousness in relationships isn’t positive.
Do we really want our teachers, coaches, pastors, administrators, journalists, writers, business owners, doctors, nurses and public-facing employees to be one big callus, numb and insensitive to the people they impact?
I’m going to throw out a wild guess and say no.
But here’s the conundrum: while I, for one, don’t want to live in a callous with an “o” society — “showing or having an insensitive and cruel disregard for others; heartless; unfeeling; uncaring; cold; hard” — the reality is, in demanding others must have “thick skin” to fill a role, ultimately this is what we’re asking for.
Do we want thick skin for the good of those in public roles, or do we place this unrealistic burden on others so we can throw verbal punches and feel justified?
I don’t have thick skin. Though, in the last few years, especially, I’ve started developing callused places in response to constant friction. These started out small, almost unnoticeable. Possibly unavoidable. Skin develops calluses after all. But in my work and in my relationships, I don’t like it.
I want to keep sensitivity and compassion as my companions, but in doing this, I need to remove the rubbing while I heal. Unfortunately this currently means I have to place boundaries around the roles and people that demand thick skin because it’s a commodity I don’t have.
Admitting this seems dangerous in a way — like maybe an enemy is waiting around the corner to strike a fatal blow. And yet, this change in perspective was helpful enough for me, that I believe it’s worth communicating: Normal skin isn’t thick. And it’s my hope that in challenging the thick-skin expectation, we can all take some time to look each other in the eye, surrounded by its minute 0.3 mm layer of skin, and start normalizing sensitivity and compassion. It is, after all, preferable to a world of callous calluses.
Malinda Just has been writing Lipstick & Pearls for the Free Press since 2008. To read more of her writing, visit her blog, www.malindajust.com, or find her on social media @MalindaDJust.