flaky, buttery, and delicious: me and my eczema

Thinking out loud about my relationship to others, myself, and my eczema. Snippets of this previously appeared on FB & IG.

Wordcount: ~3,000.
Content Note: Humiliation (?) and NSFW due to sex.

I don’t like the horror genre, because I don’t like being scared. But every now and then I press through it, like Annihilation for Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson, or Get Out to be culturally competent. I watched both with the lights on, in broad daylight, after reading the summary on Wikipedia.

I have a particular aversion to body horror though. I don’t fuck with that. I’d list some examples here, but you’ll just have to go to the Wikipedia article instead, because even thinking of listing them makes the back of my skull tingle in bad ways.

My body is already a horror, after all.

A selected list of monstrosities:

  • thickened skin, darkened skin, combine the two and you get dragon scales
  • a body full of open wounds, ready to ooze and weep and bleed at any moment
  • skin dappled with scabs in various states of repair
  • my hands, smelling of raw meat after I’ve scratched them raw
  • my fingers, stiff and brittle leaving me two options: 1) delicately applying lotion to my joints to bring movement back to them 2) clenching my hands into fists, snapping the skin open like a glow stick lit bright with my blood
  • my lips, my nipples, splitting open like overripe fruit

Does that satisfy your criteria? Do you know why my body is marked off with yellow caution tape? It’s not because of any of these, it’s because of the way you treat me.

In elementary school, my parents joked they didn’t have to worry about boys dating me.

“Who would hold your hand?” they laughed.

I smiled, not knowing what they meant.

In middle school during PE, Zach noted, “You’re less flaky now.”

I was surprised someone had looked at me long enough to notice the slow change in my skin.

Does he like me? I wondered.

(I didn’t have boys lining up to admire me in school and didn’t have girls lining up to admire me in college either. The first time someone told me they liked me was college. The first time lust licked up my thighs was college too. None of these had to do with my eczema.)

The way Cardi B said, “Bae, it’s a snack,” he said it’s an entrée, I want to come up with a punch line that revolves around the fact that like a pastry, I’m flaky, buttery, and damn tasty.

After college in the kitchen, my mom asked me to get her the quart of Dreyer’s vanilla bean ice cream from the freezer.

I got up from my chair and brought it to her, where she had the Pyrex dish and ice cream scoop ready.

“No!” she insisted. “It’s dirty from touching you.”

It’d been years since the worst of my eczema, shaking skin out my sheets, my body covered in pustules the size of quarters. And yet.

“Mom,” I said, “You asked me to bring it to you.”

And still, she would not take the ice cream. Still, she insisted it was contaminated. Was she joking with me? I felt sick, felt the tears pooling in my eyes and tried to clench against them.

“Please don’t talk about me like this,” I asked her. But she could hear the quiver in my voice that turned my request into begging.

When she at last turned from her laughter to look at me, she saw my fisted hands and the tears I was trying to hold back.

Although my mom has pushed me past my unspoken boundaries many times, she has always been very good at stopping when I finally spoke them out loud. She did, after all, teach me no means no long before it was a catchphrase.

She’d made these jokes before, but had never taken it so far. I’d never said anything, because I’d learned to fear my mother. Asking her to stop because it hurt me was a vulnerability I didn’t want to give her.

Maybe I wanted her to know for once she’d hurt me, because I’d never told her the countless times she’d done it before.

She never made jokes like that again.

I made a Facebook post about this the next year: how I don’t mind if you laugh with me about how dry my skin is. Like saying, “Jesus, this salmon is dryer than your skin!” is laughing with me, but “Jesus, your eczema is repulsive!” is laughing at me, so please don’t do the latter.

The comments came in, saying things like Yikes or Wow, that’s never okay to tell someone!

Oh, I thought, people know this already.

“There were times,” my Mom said, reminiscing when my eczema was severe, “I couldn’t even look at you. I’m so glad it’s better now.”

She may not know it, but I do: I will likely have eczema that severe again, and now I know how she feels. I will think of this conversation whenever my eczema flares.

She’s my mother, so I don’t quip, If you can’t have me at my worse, you can’t have me at best.

Eczema runs in the family. All the cousins on my father’s side have it to varying degrees. I want to ask them what was it like to date and eventually marry someone with our skin. How did they love this skin of ours? How did you talk about it?

After having sex for the first time, I laid in bed with the person I’d hand-selected from the internet.

“You didn’t touch me much,” he kindly noted.

“My hands are rough,” I warned, thinking of the edges of my eczema, and to a lesser extent my callouses from rowing, and trying to be polite.

(I wasn’t nervous about my hands, was I? I was nervous about trying something new and being bad at it. At least, that’s what I tell myself.)

“Let me see.”

I held my hands out to him. He ran his hands against mine and said, “No, they’re not. Wanna try touching me?”

So I did. I poked him in the softest part of him, and it was fine. No hiss of pain, no shudder of fear, just a good-natured laugh.

Like with many first, it was a learning opportunity. But my most valuable lessons with this had nothing to do with sex.

It was the years rearranging themselves into a new meaning: the joke about how no one would want to hold my hand, jokes about not wanting to eat food I’d prepared by hand, people not wanting to eat food I passed across the dinner table. It was realizing that although I was never embarrassed by the physical appearance of my eczema, I’d come to assume and expect people to be repulsed by it.

I had been hurt by people who had not seen the beauty I saw in myself and who instead had slowly marked the perimeter of my body a yellow-taped zone: caution, do not cross, do not draw near.

Later, with my first significant other, I learned more.

I asked him to get tested for STIs when it was clear we were going to be sexual, even if it wasn’t penetrative sex. When your whole body is covered in open wounds, there are more places for bodily fluids to splash into than just the usual warm spaces.

In the initial explorations of our bodies, I asked him if my hands were too rough to jerk him off. No, he said, and I learned to touch him without hesitation. Although if I knew I was rough around the edges, well, my jar of coconut oil was always on my nightstand, and I’d work it into my hands before working him like I was trying to pay bills.

He also didn’t give a fuck about fucking me when my eczema was running rampant. The second time the doctor put me on Prednisone (the drug they give you when you really fucked up your skin), we fucked through it. He never complained about the rashes, didn’t comment on it at all. I suppose if you’re cynical, all cats are black in the dark. But it was a kindness I didn’t know I wanted.

He wasn’t hurt when I hissed at the sting of his cum, like lemon and salt on my skin. He never complained about the bloodstains I left on his sheets, or the dusting of dry skin when he slipped into my bed. Even though he was a light sleeper, he made no mention of how I’d wake up in the middle of the night and make the bed squeak with the force of my scratching.

Most of our time spent together was at night, so he became familiar with my nightly ritual and the overnight skin supplies I’d bring to his house. Every night, before going to bed, I worked my lotions and potions into my skin, from my neck to my ankles. And one night, while watching me twist to reach my shoulder blades and work the oil in, he offered to do it for me. It was the stroke of his hands working the shea butter into my shoulders that won my heart. Had me thinking, this one’s a keeper.

This was a gift, and I am grateful to the people who opened a door to myself when they offered me the comfort of their hand in mine.

(Future significant others, take note: the way to my heart is cuddles, food, and tending to my skin with care.)

My mother once asked me as a kid if the reason I didn’t wear shorts was because of my eczema. It wasn’t; I just hated clothes shopping. I’ve never been ashamed of my eczema or letting people see it.

It had never occurred to me that my eczema would be embarrassing. In first grade, I showed my self-created gash on the side of my hand for show and tell. I’ve never hesitated to display the spoils of my itching.

And yet, what do you call it when I expect people to pull away from me because of it? As a kid, and even still now, when there’s someone I want to go away, I just tell them my eczema is contagious and they jerk away like I’m fire.

In reading about fat liberation, someone said, it was either love themselves or hate themselves forever. It was like this with my eczema. It was either love the beauty of its wild unruliness, or find myself a repulsive hag forever.

Needless to say, I didn’t choose the latter.

A relative had some kind of skin condition set in later in life. She was determined to be rid of it and in the meanwhile hid it under long-sleeves. It’s happened to other people I know too: people determined to will away their disobedient skin back to its mirror-like smoothness. I see then, how far, I’ve come.

I am older now, that first lover loved and let go. And yet, I still shudder as my heart quiets and trembles when people touch my skin, let alone name it soft or pretty. I unravel the things I learned, deciding what to keep (the affection that boy held me with) and what to toss (others’ revulsion), forgiving myself for staying quiet when I was being hurt, learning to love my skin when it’s riotous and when it’s quiescent.

This is reconciliation, this is healing, and I will make art of this one day.

During my first long-run calm spell, my skin was clear and smooth. There it was, the thing I’d been told to work for forever.

And it was terribly boring, terribly anticlimactic. It was going from a room full of color to a white room with white furniture. My body had ceased to be a living work of art.

Honestly, the whole smooth, unblemished skin thing was overrated.

Maybe this is why I love it when the sharp edges of freshly cut nails leave short-lived scars or why I love bruises as souvenirs.

I want to do a photoshoot one day, me and my skin in its entirety. These days, the bark is worse than the bite, the discoloration from the meds more prominent than the spattering of tiny red scabs of my eczema. Looking at @catherhea’s Different Kinda Pretty photo series, I regret my eczema is no longer as severe, because look at that beauty.

Talking to a kinky friend, I told it, “People tell me to stop scratching. But they’re missing the point. The pain is beside the point. The point is it still feels good even when it hurts.”

“Oh, I get it,” it said. “You just need to hang out with masochists more.”

We laughed.

Learning to care for my skin has been a lifelong process:

  • I used to hate pausing my night to moisturize and apply medicine before going to bed. Ditto waking up early to do so.
  • I eschewed applying my medicine twice daily as directed, and then realized the medicine only works if used as directed.
  • In my late teens, I realized drinking water helped tremendously too.
  • In my mid-twenties, I finally did what my stress-induced eczema had been telling me to do, and quit my stressful corporate job.
  • I’ve learned to care for myself before everything escalates to levels of Terrible and Bad. When I can’t stop itching, I take my Atarax, instead of waiting for it to be “bad enough.”

Much like yoga, taking the time to melt coconut butter or (whipped) shea butter and work it into my skin has become an opportunity to pause from multi-tasking and connect with my body. I run my hands across every inch of my skin, feeling for where the hurt is.

Other times, I get naked in front of a full-body mirror and catalog where the unseen scratches are so I can tend to them. It’s always fun to bend over in front of the mirror so I can see the back of my thighs. My thighs looks so thick, and the shadow of muscle there looks so tasty. Plus, it’s a great view of my ass and cunt.

Speaking of, yes, I have learned to moisturize my labia and asshole too. They don’t need as much TLC as the rest of my body, but every now and then they need some moisture too.

I’ve grown to love the taste of liquid Atarax (I was disappointed when they switched me to the pill form), and I’ve grown to love the feel of my skin under my own hands. I love how in the lamplight, after I moisturize, I’m supple and glowing.

I text friends and share on IG how it’s a damn shame no one’s here to bask in the gloriousness of my skin.

“You deserve someone who comes running when you text them that,” the same kinky friend insisted. And it’s right. I do.

An old prose poem:

I’ve never needed ropes of jewelry. Not when I have rubies studded across my skin like stars in the sky. I wanted to say, “I’m beautiful, this eczema is beautiful, the rough dragon patterns and dark leopard spots, the red splashes and rubies everywhere.” I tried to share this for so long and was told, No. Was met with disdain, disgust, and revulsion that my worth would be so strong it showed through my skin. Was told I needed fixing, that my beauty was in spite of my eczema.

I want to sit in my own radiance, in shared, good company. The way the sun feels warm on my skin and the moon and stars sit beneath my skin. Every night, I wrap this skin in oils and creams and medicines, and I am a galaxy shining so brightly you don’t need a telescope. I want to share this radiance and for you to say, Ok. I want to see it, let’s look together. I see it now. And together we’ll go stargazing, our hands tracing constellations with coconut oil and laughter throughout my body.

I’ve only ever wanted to share the beauty I saw in myself and know we saw the same thing.

My eczema is not something to be fixed or cured. Clear and smooth skin should not be the goal, an improved quality of life should be*. I’m fortunate the severity of my eczema has lessened over the years, but when I flare up, it’s still worse than many people have seen. As my peers have gotten older, they’ve become familiar with eczema. I am no longer the first person they meet with it.

As an icebreaker in a workshop I was at, participants were asked to share a word and hand signal for a word important to their identities. I have other identities I could’ve chose, but I said itchy, and clawed my hand through the air like a cat.

Yes, I am always itchy and scratching myself. I don’t notice it until I have to remind myself not to reach down my pants in public. I scratch in my sleep! No, I cannot stop scratching; could you stop breathing? Yes, I have to moisturize after showering, or else my skin feels like it’s two sizes too small for my body. And specifically my nipples will crack, and did you know how much watery blood nipples pour out? Yes, I take the doctor’s advice to avoid antibacterial soap when possible, but I ignore their advice to eschew hot showers.

My skin requires more care than many people’s. But some people’s pets need more maintenance and TLC than others. So do some cars. No one’s trying to convince people to give up the thing they love just because it requires more care.

So here is my body, always dry, occasionally ashy, messy and pretty and soft with shea butter and coconut oil and mine.

You would be so lucky to love it as I do.

*I want to be clear: It’s not that I don’t think we should have adequate medicine to control/clear our skin conditions. I object to the idea our eczema should be cured because it makes us hideous/repulsive and that “good skin” can only look one way. Also in the spirit of honesty, my eczema is not That Severe in the grand Eczema Scheme of Things, and I do not begrudge folks at all if they want their eczema cured.

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