When I first began powerlifting as a means to help slow the progression of osteoarthritis in my left knee, I was often angry and disappointed by my body, its inability to move the way I wanted it to, to perform some movements without pain. During one particularly emotional training moment, I was talking to my coach about my disdain for thinness of cartilage and how, no matter what we choose to do or not to do, it spends its whole time in our bodies eroding even further, sometimes degrading to the point where it needs to be replaced in certain joints. He looked me in the eyes and he said, “And isn’t it incredible that we can make the choice to tend to it? The human body has its flaws, no doubt, but it’s also so dynamic, so resilient…Do you know how many powerlifters and athletes are doing this bone-on-bone just because their genetics did not give them the gift of having ‘good’ joints? The cartilage makes the joint move more easily, it’s true, and it’s sometimes more painful to live without it, but you’ll keep moving. You have to.wp_postsThis conversation is constantly coming back to me — a reminder of both our physical and mental fragility and the power we have to overcome it or, at the very least, deal with it in a way that is fitting for us.
Jenn Shapland’s new book of essays, Thin Skin, takes this reality and expands it to include every aspect of our waking (and not awake) lives. In the first essay, also titled “Thin Skin,wp_postsShapland reveals how diagnoses of both chronic illness marked by periods of intense migraines and literal “thin skinwp_postsdue to a missing layer beneath the epidermis compounded with the COVID-19 pandemic made her “suddenly aware of the thinness of the membrane between us and the world. Between health and illness. Life and death.wp_postsBeing “thin skinnedwp_postsisn’t just a medical diagnosis; it also becomes a way of moving through and feeling “keenly, to perceive things that might go unseen, unnoticed, that others might prefer not to notice.wp_postsShe uses this positionality to explore exactly that: the boundaries, physical and not, that separate us from each other and from the world around us, how much more penetrable those boundaries are than we tend to believe, and how capitalism has and continues to erode those boundaries in every way possible.
In this title essay, Shapland writes on her adopted home of New Mexico and how The Manhattan Project — the research that led to the nuclear bomb tests undergone by the U.S. in Los Alamos, NM from 1942-1946 — poisoned the land and the people who depended on it, most notably the thousands of members of the Pueblo nation. Her research on the effects of radiation on the land and on our bodies leads to a larger examination of the way our bodies and our lives are completely inundated by waste and by the effects of toxic waste on the environment. Through the process of doing this research and sharing it with others, Shapland encounters the reality of how knowledge, especially knowledge that is often hard to accept, also permeates our boundaries and becomes a part of us against our individual and collective will. She contends that we should let these new understandings in, and then, hopefully, do something with them: “Toxic histories and legacies are in this way like illnesses, and in many ways, they are literal illnesses we must all live with and acknowledge if they are not to take us unawares, to be compounded by our every action. The only way to acknowledge them is to call them out, to name them, to talk about them when no one else wants to hear.”
The next essay, “Strangers on a Train,wp_poststakes the metaphor in another direction. Here, Shapland discusses her sheltered and privileged upbringing in the majority white Chicago suburb Lake Forest. In Lake Forest and through the biased media we’re constantly bombarded with, she was taught to be afraid: of strangers, of the inevitability of her mortality, of people whose life’s circumstances were much different than hers, and of men, especially Black men. She excavates a few different memories to show the ways these pervasive messages are passed onto women, particularly white women, to make them believe their lives are always in peril, that they’re always at risk of losing their power to some unforeseen threat.
These messages work to keep the white supremacist social, economic, and racial order the way it always has been with white males at the top and keeps white women in a constant state of wishing for “securitywp_poststhey don’t believe they have: “My perceived fragility, my deeply felt fear, is a performance, whether or not I’m aware of it as such, and it’s a performance […] that erases and devalues the real victims of violent crime and recenters the white woman.wp_postsMeanwhile, as she points out, the lives of Indigenous women and Black women and women of color are always in danger, constantly at the whim of a society that was not built to protect them and has no intention to start. This brings her to the truth we all know but are often too afraid to admit: “There is no such thing as safety, only the sense of entitlement to it.”
The two essays following, “The Toomuchnesswp_postsand “Crystal Vortex,wp_poststake on the problems and failures of racial capitalism in our individual lives more directly, albeit in completely different ways. The former addresses the ways capitalism has reoriented our boundaries — between our selves and others’ selves, between life and labor, between desire and the need to consume, etc. — and made them much more difficult to perceive. Capitalism, with its demands of more production and more product, has completely disrupted what we value and how we value the lives of the people around us and the things we create, how we respond to desire, and how we practice patience (or don’t). At the same time, Shapland explains, it makes us desperate for attention and validation, makes us believe we can solve the fact of our loneliness and constant dehumanization through the purchasing of physical objects, a collection of things. She explains: “Our boundaries are overrun, yet we want to fathom our own place in it all, we want to remain autonomous, we want to know where we begin and end. Capitalism, the drive for profit, also dissolves all our boundaries, but not in the pleasant way that love or sex or mind-altering chemicals or immersing yourself in the natural world does. Boundaries between work and not work, between private and public, between sharing and publicity, connecting with others and selling ourselves to others. Many of our current social issues can be seen in this light as a fight over boundaries, a longing for some kind of clear separation.”
How do we move beyond consumerism and fight to dismantle the system created primarily to function against us and dismantle our humanity for all of our lives? In Shapland’s view, we might not be able to do a lot but we can certainly do what we can.
The latter focuses on how to construct a creative and meaningful life in the midst of all this societal chaos and constant destruction. She reminds us how taking time to reflect on our lives and process our thoughts fully is an essential part of gaining knowledge, understanding our emotions, and generating new visions in the art and writing we choose to create but we are often torn away from these possibilities by the responsibilities and distractions thrust onto us by a capitalist system that seeks to exploit us. She writes:
“Becoming aware of oneself, turning inward, is uncomfortable and can alert us to pain we didn’t know was there. Many of our activities exist to numb us to this discomfort. Yet self-knowledge is the gateway to insight: quiet reflection is the space where insight can occur. Often such reflection is viewed as recursive, navel-gazing, self-indulgent. Self-care is a new perversion, a neoliberal project of caring for the body and mind primarily to make them more productive, useful in the marketplace.wp_posts
Shapland uses this meditation on how we create meaning and purpose in our lives as a jumping off point for the real examination of the piece: the way our lives are so inextricably connected to every person and living thing surrounding us and the responsibility we have to each other and everything else. She continues:
“We are responsible to others for our actions and inactions. […] If, in the face of human cruelty and destruction, we come to believe that there is no justice, that everything is random, then it follows that our own actions have no meaning. But the recognition of injustice undercuts this kind of nihilism. To recognize injustice, to witness pain, is to long for justice, for a more just response or action to be taken. That longing gives us purpose. Thus our lives have meaning, and they can be either working for justice or not working for justice, i.e., allowing injustice. There is no neutral stance. There is no meaningless life or action. Every action entails/implies responsibility to another, or a refusal to acknowledge your own responsibility. Crucially, these positions are not stagnant or stable but change every time we make a choice, speak up, stay silent. Like art, or faith, they are practices, not identities.”
Perhaps the meaning and purpose we seek is already here and already part of us, but we’ve just been driven by distraction to think it isn’t, to think we’re incapable of harnessing it, and to think we’re not worthy of it.
Her final essay in the collection, cleverly titled “The Meaning of Life,wp_postsan excerpt of which we published here earlier this week, is bound to be considered the most controversial and confrontational essay (even though I personally believe they are all equally confrontational to a society that truly doesn’t want to fully engage with the conversations Shapland is creating here.) While all of the essays in the collection have personal recollections and often dive into Shapland’s memories and inner life, this essay shifts the entire focus back on Shapland, specifically on her and her partner’s decision to never have children. But, of course, like the rest of the essays here, this essay isn’t simply a manifesto arguing that people have the right to choose a childfree life; it is an incredibly expansive interrogation of how often womanhood and motherhood are conflated, how childbearing is an often impulsive decision in response to the lessons we’re taught about what constitutes a family, how childbearing impacts climate change and other issues we’re currently contending with, how childbearing is impacted the system of capitalist exploitation that Shapland has been exploring throughout the entire text, and how queerness can help us reimagine what family looks like and how we create it. She recalls the teachings of Adrienne Rich and Eileen Myles, cites scientific and sociological studies and data, discusses her relationship with her mom who passed away before the writing of this text, and even brings back some of the lessons she learned from other thinkers she discussed in the previous essays. I have to admit that the research and writing of this essay is so broad and comprehensive, it’s hard to pinpoint a part of it that might help me better explain in the way that I have the others. What is most impressive about it, though, is that all of it leads to this one poignant expression of her position towards the end of the essay: “Maybe it doesn’t dishonor my mom to consider a life without kids. Maybe I owe it to myself to let something new happen, for once. To make time for the bees and the aimless walks and the open-endedness of my days. Maybe I owe it to her. My mom didn’t get to live out her dotage. So I’ll live hers for her, starting now.wp_postsThe essay itself presents a clear explanation of her (very sound) rationalization for not having children, but even if she wasn’t able to craft those arguments, it would be enough to choose a childless life because the choice is there, even if some people don’t believe it is.
Thin Skin is a masterful, incisive, and intellectually moving piece of work that I couldn’t stop reading and annotating. When I finished it, I wanted to immediately reread it and make sure I didn’t miss anything. Like her previous work, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, Shapland’s writing is highly engaging and moves around from idea to idea without missing a single critical connection. Her prose is crystalline and evocative, and her messages are powerful enough to hopefully lead some readers to look closely at themselves and their relationships to the people and other living things around them. Shapland never purports to have all of the answers here, and why would she? She alone cannot possibly solve all of the problems she examines in these essays. She knows it, and that’s part of what makes her writing so fascinating, so versatile, so desirable. These essays contain multiple arguments but instead of seeking to come up with the answers for us, Shapland invites us into the conversation.
In that way, the work here fulfills Sinead O’Connor’s belief that it is the artist’s duty to “create difficult conversationswp_postsand Toni Cade Bambara’s belief that the artist’s role is to “make the revolution irresistible.wp_postsI can only hope that the people who choose to read it can allow the boundaries they’ve put up around their ability to envision a better future for us all to be as “thinwp_postsas Shapland’s skin and the cartilage of my left knee. It is works like what she’s done in Thin Skin that can help so many move from states of inertia to boundless energy in service of creating a better world.
Thin Skin by Jenn Shapland is out now. You can read an excerpt from one of the book’s essays on Autostraddle.