Yayoi Kusama, Eyes of Mine, 2010

Yayoi Kusama, Eyes of Mine, 2010

The body implies mortality, vulnerability, agency:

The skin and the flesh expose us to the gaze of others

Judith Butler

What constitutes the Self? Where do I stop being an I and where does the beginning of someone else lie? When looking in the mirror I see myself, in a way in which I also perceive the Other. Simultaneously, I feel myself, I am my inside, the subject. Also the Other can see me the way I see myself in the mirror, however, we do not share this “feeling” of I as a subject: I as a coherent whole, with a personality, character, a mind, a body. For as they see me does not mean they comprehend or know me. I am nothing more than an object, but still we tend to adjust ourselves to the eyes from the one across from us. Simultaneously, we put a lot of importance upon our autonomy and this idea of the coherent I. The most identifiable distinction between the Self and the Other is the corporeal: “I render myself present to you and to the world through my body, and in perceiving me so do you” (325, Synesiou). The body serves as the “concrete expression of my existence”, as if we exist within the visible (325). Thus, we have the body, and the body does more than merely serve as a boundary towards the Other; it is also a site for communication and apprehension. The body can not only be seen, it can be touched and it can be tasted, smelled. It can be perceived in so many ways, and within it lies a vulnerability; whatever can be touched, seen, heard, can also be hurt, violated, screamed at.

“Skin opens our bodies to other bodies: through touch, the separation of self and other is undermined in the very intimacy or proximity of the encounter” (6, Ahmed). In the psychoanalytic theory of skin, the skin is conceived as the expression of the boundary between the Self and the outside world, an idea firstly described by Esther Bick. The skin not only functions as the physical border constituting the body, it also bears a mental line, protecting the self; the skin creates a place between internal and external space, as experienced by the bearer. “When the psychic skin boundary is operating in relative equilibrium, an individual feels at once held together and open to exchanges with others and is able to notice and communicate internal states of being without feeling unbearably exposed” (15, Failler). The importance of the skin thus already starts at the beginning of someone’s life. The necessity of this ‘being held together and open to exchange’ appears as soon as coming in the world. “I am conceived in fusion and elaborated in symbiosis. This is my first experience as a sentient being. As the fetus, I have skin, viscera and a beating heart from the first month of my existence” (321, Synesiou). Thus, already inside the mother’s body, this skin is there, but it is constantly held together by the body it is enclosed by. However, when born: “I am detached upon my mother’s body and detached from it, ineluctable and deferred” (321). This detachment makes the symbiosis fall apart, and in order to remain one, the child will have to be contained, allowing the infant a feeling of safety. This explains why the emphasis is so much on the ‘containment’ of the skin by the caregiver. As described by Reynolds:

“The sense of self as contained can only be achieved through substantial experience of skin-to-skin contact with a caregiver, and that it is also through this contact that the infant discovers space inside, into which an object can be introjected. Through the infant’s successful introjection of the caregiver’s functions, the skin symbolically takes on the caregiver’s containing role” (25, Reynolds).

This essay argues the importance of the body in relation to the construction of one’s identity, with the skin as ultimate realisation of the boundary between Self and Other. But the delicacy of this line only becomes visible through its relation with the Other:

“The transfer of corporeal schema results in postural impregnation with which I take in the other’s bodily conduct – gestures, movements, mannerisms – before I have learnt to mimic it. As I do not have a developed visual sense of the other or of my own body I do not distinguish myself from the other; the truths of my body are the truths of the other’s body. I live what the other lives, there is an absence of boundary” (323, Synesiou).

Thus, in order to realise the distinction between yourself and the Other, it is imperative to embody the Other as well. This is not merely a phase necessary for the development of a child, but it is a constant process. The result this type of ‘mimification’ affects lies within the Self: “through it I recognize myself in everything and am able to apprehend others and their emotional atmosphere in a carnal way” (323). However, this unavoidable embodiment of the Other also enlarges the vulnerability of the Self.

As Sarah Ahmed states, in modern thought, “bodies are no longer assumed simply to be given in and to the world but are rather understood as both the locus of thinking – the site from which thinking takes place – and as the object of thought – as being already subject to interpretation and conceptualization” (3, Ahmed). Which again demonstrates the importance of the Other: we constitute ourselves, our own bodies, by means of the eyes of the other. Exactly through this ‘interpretation’ and ‘conceptualization’, we are Self, in body and in thought. This indicates how thin the boundaries indeed are, even for people with a thick skin. When the bodily line between I and the Other already appears to be so very small, this boundary could be violated in such an apparent way as well. The right to self-determination, we all claim to have in order to maintain our identity, lies open to the world. Our skins ought to be contained, the Others we have embodied are not allowed to leave us, hurt us, cause any pain or violation. Everything influences everything, and the Self remains a delicate state of being. What then can we do to protect ourselves? Most probably we will be hurt at a certain point of our lives. What to do? How to react?

The embodiment of feelings seems to be a rather natural, unconscious human characteristic. We cry when sad, our faces turn red when shame appears, we imagine butterflies in our stomachs when in love and immediately laugh when being tickled. The body communicates its inner state of psychological being. The line between body and mind is a rather precarious one; the body is directly influenced by stirrings in our soul. The effects that are imparted could be grounded in a need to communicate — I am crying when I am sad in order to show you I am sad — even at moments one does not want to show his or her emotions. It is usually the first reaction that is a corporeal one. This first reaction is then followed by a second one: when feelings entering our conscious — enabling rationalisation — we start talking. Thinking, writing and talking our way through emotions, making use of language in an effort to overcome the pain. Explaining our emotions either to ourselves, or to someone else. However, as “Merleau-Ponty claims that for speech to appear, there must be a structure of reflexivity between self, other, and world (something that can also be explained through Lacan’s symbolic. An order that you will never enter unless communication is a necessity)” (McLane, 116.) Thus we need reflexivity in order to communicate through language. Let us then move towards the silent ones, those remaining speechless but people that carry bodies showing so much inner pain.

Let us turn back to the skin theory derived from psychoanalysis, wherein the boundary between Self and Other is largely depended upon the boundary that is constituted by the skin, any violation of this skin immediately influences the notion of the Self; it touches someone’s identity. Through the distinction that has been made between psychological and physiological skin, the skin bears deep significance in protecting oneself. When there is a lack of containment — the psychological skin could never fully grow — or if the mental skin is peeled off during a later stage in life — someone making advantage of the vulnerability of the body, the openness of our skin — what protection of self-identity remains? The body is being violated and the Self becomes ‘unbearably exposed’. As Failler describes: “if the psychic skin boundary is compromised, due either to the mother’s inability to contain her infant’s anxieties for reasons of her own or to some later violation of one’s sense of cohesion or bodily integrity, a protective, unconscious ‘second skin’ forms” (15, Failler). This second skin then functions as a protection of the self and makes sure the one that is hurt, remains an autonomous being. This makes the damage done to the skin by self-mutilators bear another layer of meaning.

“Injuries result in a tangible, protective layer — a literal second skin — as scabs and scars form per the top of wounds. Although enacted corporeally an on/near the body’s surface, cutting and marking the skin in this way bears deep emotional significance as both an attempt to represent psychical trauma and to compensate for it” (15, Failler).

Thus; “although self-mutilation causes harm, that harm is not caused by others. It is initiated, defined, and ended by the mutilator herself, to the pointed exclusion of anyone else. Others remain other, they do not invade the self physically or psychically” (McLane, 114). The self-mutilation offers a possibility of taking back the vulnerability that the violation of the body has caused. The control taken over by the Other, is herewith taken back by the Self; the mutilator reclaims her own body by means of her second skin. Making “the trauma simultaneously expressed and controlled; injury exists here and now, not everywhere and always” (112). The inner pain becomes visible, controllable, assignable in its origin, is identifiable; the actor protects his or her identity.

So here again, the body is a site of expressing a pain, as experienced by the mutilator. But why then, does she not express through her speech? Why can language not fulfill the position of the protective layer, the second skin? Following McLane’s reading of Merleau-Ponty wherein she argues that ‘for speech to appear, there must be a structure of reflexivity between self, other, and world’, she states: “But an abuser refuses to acknowledge the reality of reversibility, trying rather to usurp the victim’s body and spirit as proof of his own power.” (McLane 116). Since the victim-abuser relationship is not one of any acknowledgment but one constituted by a pure, unwarranted, domination. “Gewalt its stumm und macht stumm” (Zehetner, 6). In order to enter a Zugang to any language whatsoever: “The self-mutilator attempts to make the necessary reflexive structure of self, other and world, all within the boundaries of herself” (117). The speaking that is necessary to overcome the grief is denied; it has become impossible. So there must be other ways of communication — all within the boundaries of herself. So it is not only self-mutilation that can be explained through this, but also the refusal of food from the anorectic.

The visible part of the anorectic’s body — often hidden under large sweaters and wide trousers — the extreme slenderness, a pale, yellowish skin with thick veins, has become a body that is taken in control by the anorectic, in order to ’make the necessary reflexive structure of self, other and world’. Taking control over the Self in order to keep a sense identity, in order to refrain from falling apart. What most often starts as a secret, gives the anorectic a sense of being strong, she is overcoming her hunger, controlling her body — not her appetite — the refusal of food gives her a sense of unique identity and also here the sufferer comes ‘to the pointed exclusion of anyone else’. At a later stage in the disorder, the secret becomes too visible to remain unseen, but this becoming visible also bears meaning. “While symptoms function to protect or shield, they can also secure the attention and concern of others. In Winnicottian terms, then, symptoms are a way of testing both the flexibility and dependability of the environment, including the limits of loved ones” (101, Failler). Failler describes that “the symptoms serve the sufferer”, since the sufferer will start looking unhealthy and creates worrying people around him or her, the people standing by will have to react. Either through caring, forcing her to eat, or by looking away. “Psychoanalytically speaking, symptoms keep wishes unconscious. Keeping wishes unconscious means keeping them unsusceptible to the risk of being either dashed or fulfilled, especially by someone that one cares about” (101). The anorectic does not even recognize the “seriousness of own body weight”, forcing others to take responsibility and thus answer her behavior. Likewise the secretive aspect of his or her behavior secures the protective aspect grounded in the disease: it legitimizes a lack of reaction, help or acknowledgment of the patient’s surroundings. Maintaining the sufferer’s search for an independent self-identity. Both the self-mutilator and the anorectic keep others at a distance through the sight of their bodies, through the creation of a second skin, creating a sense of Self, of control, of exclusion. Simultaneously they communicate their pain by means of the body, attracting others to contain, care and recognize them.

Lucie Sara Fortuin

Lucie Fortuin (1990) is comparative literature student based in Amsterdam. She has been studying around Europe, which intensified her love for language, arts and culture and has a special place in her heart for critical theory and David Foster Wallace. Currently she is writing both fiction as university essays. Eventually, by combining her fascination for high philosophy and fiction, she hopes to be admitted into a creative writing program.


Ahmed, Sarah and Jackie Stacey (2004), Thinking Through the Skin. Routledge, New York.

Butler, Judith, (2003), ‚Violence, Mourning, Politics’, Studies in Gender and Sexuality, No 4.1, p9-37.

Failler, Angela, (2006), ‘Appetizing Loss: Anorexia as an Experiment in Living’, Eating Disorders: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention, Aug, p99-107.

—. (2008) ‘Narrative Skin Repair. Bearing Witness to Representations of Self-Harm’‚ English Studies in Canada, March, p11-28.

McLane, Janice, (1996), ‘The Voice on the Skin: Self-Mutilation and Merleau-Ponty’s Theory of Language’, Hypatia, Autumn, p107-118.

Reynolds, Dee, (2009), ‘Response to ‘Skin and the Self: Cultural Theory and Anglo-American Psychoanalysis’, Body & Society No 15, p25-32.

Synesiou, Natasha, (2012), ‘Boundary and Ambiguity: Merleau-Ponty and the Space of Psychotherapy’, Existential Analysis, No 23, p320-332.

Zehetner, Bettina, (2013)‚ ‘Körper und Sprache, Macht und Geschlecht’, Seminar Handbuch Universität Wien, p1-17.

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