It’s the back-to-school season, and I wake up with cold knees thinking, shirts and skins. Touch football. Wishful thinking on the part of our high school gym teachers, that latter term. We were not there to touch, much less to be touched — a popular euphemism for insanity when I was a kid. Manliness meant playing rough, rejecting all gentler forms of physical contact. To be a man meant to carry a switchblade in the front pocket and a can of chewing tobacco in the rear, to be always ready with a lightning-swift jab or a stream of spit.
Even for a pacifist such as I was then, showing fear or pain would’ve wounded my pride, that golem, that reservoir of touchiness. I learned to stand still and smile when someone punched me in the chest with all their strength, and to show up at the appointed spot for an after-school fight ready to turn the other, defiant cheek. I got good at it — maybe too good. My skin — I like to say when people wonder whether they should venture to criticize something I’ve done — is a mile thick.
But perhaps the operative measurement is not thickness, but proportion of surface to volume. In which case, I must’ve been nearly as sensitive as one can get, since I was always very ectomorphic — i.e., skinny. Unlike now, when my heart and my gut — that moral lodestone of our president — are much more insulated from direct contact with the world.
Even though I hated team sports, the symbolic aspect of the contest between shirts and skins fascinated me. The Skins: lord, how we white people have always loved to play at savage, stripping for the Boston Tea Party, wearing blackface, getting “tribal” tattoos. Naturally hairy, how we have alternately loathed and adored the shaved skin, the tattooed skin, the pierced skin! And then to make such a commotion about its color, because the eyes at least can hold another at a distance and still take her measure, unlike the sense of touch. Once upon a time in white America, ultimate humiliation wore a thick skin of tar coated with feathers. Soft, sticky, tar-baby-dangerous, it represented everything a man must reject. We need so badly to steel ourselves against the treacherous vulnerability of the Other.
Nakedness in European culture has long been confused with an existential withoutness. The naked savage by definition lacks civilization, refinement, even — yes — sensitivity! But boys’ pick-up sports, even in a school without uniforms, may show the folly of this conception, because in fact it is the shirts who are defined by what they cannot be: nude. In a situation where nakedness is elective and clothing is otherwise compulsive, it is the clothed who are without that most precious of possessions, freedom.
In other situations, of course, the opposite may be true — under slavery, for example. In that case, the skin itself became a uniform, and a single value — blackness — was imposed on a wide range of colors. One way or another, the infinitely attractive and subtle skin challenges those who would enforce uniformity of behavior. For Westerners, and for anyone else who aspires to modernity, your shirt is the one thing you don’t want to lose. However much we fetishize the naked skin, clothed remains the standard, the flag, the team colors that inspire allegiance to the rules of the contest. Clothed and closed.