Our roofer stopped by our house recently to give us an estimate smack dab in the middle of my work day. I’d had a busy, productive morning: I went to the pool and swam laps before work, showering and putting on my cream before driving home. I was back at my computer and making good progress on my to-do list. And then the doorbell rang halfway through my Zoom meeting.
One sec,” I told my colleagues, putting myself on mute and dashing over to the door.
“Hi,” I told our roofer. He smiled—and then his eyes zeroed in on my face.
“Been going to the tanning bed, have we?” he said cheerfully, completely unaware that he just blew up my day with this trauma-bomb of a question.
My mouth fell open and I grasped for a reply. I was, as I so often am in these moments, completely taken aback.
If you know anything about me (or about dermatology) you’ll know that I stay far, far, away from tanning beds, which are terrible for your skin health. Our roofer was referring to the red, peeling skin on my face—my eczema gets that way when I’m in a flare. But I was so caught off guard that I didn’t think to launch into an explanation of my skin. Besides, I don’t actually owe anyone an explanation. So I said the first thing that came to mind.
It’s because I went swimming,” I replied curtly, in a tone that I hoped was authoritative enough to prevent any further questions. And then I changed the subject. “Can you tell me what’s going on with our roof?”
Here’s a non-exhaustive list of where people have confronted me about my skin: browsing in an antique store. Mingling at a cocktail party. Checking a book out of the library. Sitting on an airplane. Changing in the locker room. In the middle of a Zoom meeting.
The questions they ask, which can be curious or hyper-intrusive or downright rude, inevitably knock me off my axis.
“What happened to your face?” “Do you have chicken pox?” “Are you sunburnt?” “Is that contagious?” “Ew, look at her skin!”
For awhile when I was a kid, I told people that my eczema was contagious. Their eyes would widen in alarm, and they’d back away. It was a great way to get them to leave me alone.|
As an adult, I’m no longer quite so defensive (which I’m pretty sure is a good thing!). But it means that when people ask about my skin, it feels like a real intrusion. I don’t have a witty retort at the ready. I’m not primed to offer a crisp soundbite. And I want you to know that you don’t have to be either. Here’s my advice on what to do when you’re confronted with unwanted questions and remarks about your skin.
You don't have to engage
Just somebody because somebody asks about your skin doesn’t mean you have to answer. You’re under absolutely zero obligation to indulge a stranger’s curiosity or respond to hurtful comments. There’s also no rule saying you have to be polite—or even answer questions at all. So feel free to ignore the question-asker altogether or deliver a reply that will let them know your skin isn’t up for discussion. “I’m not going to answer that,” “My body is none of your business,” or “That’s a very intrusive question,” will get the message across.
It’s not your job to educate (but there may be moments when you want to, and that’s okay)
Some people might argue that questions about your skin present an opportunity to raise awareness. But awareness-raising is not a job you’re required to do. In fact, it can be burdensome—a form of emotional labor that people with chronic illnesses, disabilities, and visible differences are asked to do over and over again. Talking about your skin can sap your time and energy. It can bring up all kinds of emotions, memories, and trauma. Know that it’s not your responsibility to educate anyone, especially at the expense of your own mental health.
That said, there may be times when you do want to educate people—when it doesn’t feel like emotional labor, but rather the right thing to do. For me, it’s usually when I get a question from a kid, especially if it comes from a place of curiosity or concern. I think there are powerful teachable moments that can come from talking about respect and body acceptance.
Just this week my neighbor’s seven-year-old daughter asked about the fissures on my wrist while we were eating dinner together. She’s a sweet, caring child and we’re friends. That made it a lot easier for me to conjure up a gracious, age-appropriate answer. “You might look at my skin and think ‘yuck,’” I said, “but this is my normal body. I want everybody to feel normal about their bodies.” She listened thoughtfully, nodding. Then we finished our pizza and lit some sparklers. It was great.
You don’t have to accept people’s pity—you can demand their respect instead
I find that when I answer stranger’s questions about my eczema (yes it’s very itchy, yes I’ve had it my whole life), their shock or disgust can quickly turn to pity. “I don’t know how you do it,” they’ll say. “You’re so brave."
Language like that makes me bristle. I’ve learned to live with my skin condition because I didn’t have another choice. It wasn’t out of bravery—it was out of necessity. And the trouble with pity is that it focuses on suffering. It doesn’t make room for your full, complicated, human self. It doesn’t demonstrate understanding, empathy, or respect.
The next time you’re hit with a dose of pity you didn’t ask for, remind whoever you’re talking to that your disease is not the sum total of who you are, and that you’re a human being who requires respect. “Thanks for your concern, but you don’t need to feel sorry for me” or “I prefer to be seen as a whole person, not a set of symptoms” may just do the trick.
I don’t think I’ll ever get used to people asking questions about my skin. I’m also not quick enough on my feet to conjure up the perfect reply. But I do know that when I talk about my eczema, I want it to be on my terms. We deserve to shape our own narratives about our skin—and they’re far more complicated and beautiful than the answers others are looking for.