Expert's Opinion

Skin: It's Deeper Than We Think

By Denise Greenaway , Food Psychologist | March 12, 2013

Insight from food psychologist Denise Greenaway.

In remote, central Australia there are Aboriginal communities, whose traditions are more than 46,000 years old. I have spent time in one of them, not as a psychologist, but as a woman. In the middle of the desert, miles from mirrors and the media, these communities taught me to dance (semi-naked), painted my body, laughed with me and showed me what it feels like to live in an image-free society.

The women in these Aboriginal communities had a profound effect on me. The way they welcomed me—despite the color of my skin, the way my hair looked or what I was wearing—deeply moved me. I can’t remember feeling so safe, so loved and so accepted by a group of women.

There’s an old saying in our culture that "beauty is only skin deep," but in Aboriginal culture, skin marks the network of belonging. Clans are of the "same skin" and remarkably a family can take you in and make you a skin brother or sister should they choose. So skin is very important.

In the modern world, girls and women with body image disorders don’t feel safe or comfortable in their own skin. In fact they often don’t want to feel at all. They have deserted their "feeling" body in favor of a "mental" body, an image, a picture to which they want to aspire. Such a phenomenon would never happen in the ancient Aboriginal cultures, where girls knew where they belonged, because of their skin.

So what of beauty then? Did the ancient women take care of themselves? Absolutely. Skin is so important to them; it is the canvas for all occasions: grief, birth, adolescence and other initiations. For celebratory gatherings, bright ochres are taken from the earth and pastes are made from plants and other natural products to adorn the skin. Ash is used to heal and protect the skin and gels are used to moisten both skin and hair.

When I was painted up, I was in a women’s cave. Never before had I had my breasts decorated. The earthy product used felt so good I didn’t want to wash it off. And it was an "ah-ha" moment too. Feeling good overwhelmed my desire to look good. Beside who was looking? No one, except the woman painting me. Nonetheless, I had to take a peek at the other women, having never before seen so many different breast shapes, each glistening with fabulous artwork.

“This is food for the skin,” I thought to myself. “And for the soul.” To be surrounded by women enjoying the sensation of touch, the healing power of the clays used and the emotional company of each other, with no one comparing, competing.

Ancient women’s business was the gift they gave me, and now I share it with my patients, my family, friends and readers. What I say is: “Feel good, nourish you body and celebrate being who you are. You have the same wiring as those ancient women, and the same potential to develop a healthy self and a healthy community.”

About the Author Denise Greenaway lives in Ocean Shores, Australia where she is a consulting food psychologist and therapist, educator and lecturer. Greenaway has traveled all over the world to schools, summer camps, corporations, prisons and reservations, lecturing about women’s issues and healthy body image. She has written two other books, Mirror Mirror, a body image fairytale workbook for girls aged 8-12, and Rainbow Food, a healthy eating workbook for schools and families.

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