Skin is a story about a woman, Natalie, who struggles with binge eating and anxiety and is spurred to travel to ‘find herself,’ literally and metaphorically. We see her journey to Bali, Australia, New Zealand, rural Ireland, Dublin, Peru and Holland in her quest to belong. She also brings her fitness class participants on imaginary trips, in finely researched sessions to different destinations, including Antarctica and the moon. These geographical searches are projections of Natalie’s psychological development.
On these voyages of self-discovery, Natalie unravels unrealistic societal expectations on women (and men’s) body images and beauty standards. The twelve vignettes in the novel viscerally explore health and wellness, body-acceptance, fitness, ageing and Western privilege. Different forms of sexuality, modern romance and dating culture are also interweaved in the pieces but ultimately this is a love story between Natalie and herself.
The process of writing, editing and publishing my debut novel Red Dirt took about five years. I was very determined professionally and singularly focused on that project but at the same time, in my personal life, I was travelling the world and began frequenting the gym. Skin is comprised of these accumulated travel stories, interests and ideas from that period. Creatively, I felt I couldn’t move on to writing new fiction without getting these pieces down and shaped.
‘Writers write what they are worried about,’ is something that the brilliant writer Alistair MacLeod said at the Cork International Short Story Festival a few years ago and I often quote it. The themes in Skin were definitely things I was mulling over and educating myself on during my late twenties and early thirties and I wanted to present them in a fun way in the book.
Initially, Natalie is adrift, disconnected from her peers, her body and her sense of life purpose. My task was to create a character who uses her imagination self-destructively by worrying and overthinking and then eats emotionally to counteract the subsequent fear that’s created from these stressful thoughts. If food is being used to fill emotional voids, it becomes a drug. Natalie is aware she has a problem and presses on with a sense of adventure and a sense of humour to find a solution.
Statistics show that 3 out of 4 women will have had a dysfunctional relationship with food at some point in their lives. 30% of the world’s population is now obese. These statistics are quite alarming and flag at underlying issues. Emotional eating is both addictive and guilt-inducing, bringing on more self-punishment, which is usually with food, and so a vicious cycle ensues.
In today’s world, fast food is cheaper and quicker than healthier foodstuffs. Yet the societal pressure on people and their bodies is increasing, highlighted by social media, celebrity culture and the rising demand for cosmetic surgery.
Over 80% of women are dissatisfied with their appearance and have a distorted self-image, which focuses on perceived flaws. Promotion of self-loathing and unrealistic beauty standards is big business and though it may be somewhat biological for women to want a desirable appearance, modern marketing has turned this vulnerability into disempowerment for many.
The book opens with a sleazy episode in Bali where Natalie’s compulsive eating and issues with her weight are palpable. Throughout the various episodes in Skin which follow, we see incremental stages of self-acceptance in Natalie as she figures out what she is good at, how she can heal.
The world is a mirror and Natalie’s is confronted by the situations of others who are embroiled with or have overcome their own bitter disappointments, worries and body issues. I wanted these characters to be striking, from female sex tourists in Indonesia to a Victorian-era obsessed butterfly collector she matches with on Tinder; a depressed poet overstays his welcome in Natalie’s grandmother’s house and this scenario tests the people pleasing aspects of Natalie’s personality. In Peru, she has a hallucinogenic encounter with an immortal cactus; and in the title story, a handsome entrepreneur she meets on a flight to Holland has a secret.
Natalie’s journey will hopefully resonate with readers, despite some startling moments along the way, Skin is ultimately a celebration of minor successes, about finding a sense of purpose and enjoying life.
(c) E.M. Reapy
Elizabeth (E.M.) Reapy is from Mayo. Her debut novel Red Dirt was published in 2016 by Head of Zeus and won Newcomer of the Year at the 2016 Irish Book Awards. In 2017, she was awarded the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. She was a Dublin UNESCO City of Literature Writer-in-Residence for 2018. Her second novel Skin is out in August 2019.
This pertinent, timely, intelligent and incredibly compelling exploration of the relationship we have with our own bodies opens in Bali. Natalie, its protagonist, is uncomfortable in her own skin. Her most recent relationship is long since over and she’s become disillusioned with her career as a teacher – adopting a tried-and-tested attempt at self-discovery, she packs her bags to go travelling.
Natalie travels to Bali, New Zealand, Australia, Dublin, rural Ireland and the Netherlands to try and find her place, but her isolation abroad only heightens her sense of unease. Her journey is psychological as well as physical – she is obsessed with her shape, believing herself to be awkward and over-large, recoiling from relationships with men and eating compulsively as a self-destructive reaction to her issues with her weight.
As the narrative unfolds, we gradually become aware of a crucial development in Natalie beginning to take place. This novel engages powerfully with issues that are important to women, and also to people in general, via an incredibly beguiling protagonist – she is intelligent and self-aware, sharp and acute, and able to see the comic side of her predicament. An intensely enjoyable and thought-provoking read.
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