We are obsessed with skin. Whether it’s black, tan, white, thick, thin, naked, wrinkled, plumped, lifted, painted or scrubbed, we assess skin and deliver our judgment. We’re usually unfair, if not plain wrong, yet we can’t seem to go beyond our outer layer. Is it merely the high-pressure hose of popular culture?

Bravely, I’ve been watching the U.S. presidential candidates’ game-show-format “debates” (don’t do this yourself) featuring a couple of dozen middle-aged low-to-middle-IQ American men-plus-Clinton-and-Obama. Ostensibly, I’m assessing whether the content of their character shows in their generally quite silly faces.

It does. People who have had facial surgery, dermabrasion in particular, look peculiar, as dodgy as their natures. Republican Mike Huckabee’s face looks like a mudslide, mainly because he lost 150 pounds after a gastric bypass operation and skin can’t cope after an emptying like that. It’s like Silly Putty. It stretches endlessly. Perhaps fortunately, it doesn’t snap.

Political skins

All these tiny silvery scars and stretched eyes show that politicians will surgically alter their skin to prove to voters that they don’t care about their skin, the theory being that voters won’t object to what looks passable. The problem is people hate vain politicians even more than they hate ugly ones, which is why John Edwards is ruthlessly mocked by his relatively hideous opponents. He is alleged to be vain, even if he clearly doesn’t have to bother being vain. Anyone can see he is hot and beautiful. One reason both Bill Clinton and Edwards were hit with inaccurate attacks on their expensive hairdressers is jealousy. Look at George Bush’s hair. Can you even describe it?

American voters also won’t vote for a man who doesn’t have the self-control to stop eating before he looks like a dinghy that inflated indoors. There’s no gastric banding in life, the Christian Right will intone. It’s a shame, because Huckabee (despite being the governor Rick Mercer persuaded to congratulate Canada on preserving its National Igloo) is not nearly as stupid as Democrat Tom Vilsack, who dropped out of the race because nobody could stand him. Jon Stewart said it was because of his name, but I don’t necessarily think “Vilsack” is a funnier name than “Bush,” which is hugely funny.

The fact that I drone on about the peculiar vacant faces of low-brow politicians is a sign that skin matters, maybe more than anything. As long as it’s white, of course.

Focus in black and white

In Paris recently, I noticed something new. Expensive shops were now employing black people. Not the disaffected and desperate Arabs of the banlieues, but young people with dark, black skin. It wasn’t guilt over French racism that made them do this. It’s that their black skin is gaspingly perfect. The French, as much as they love a jolie laide, care deeply about appearance. Black skin doesn’t collapse and wither like white skin; black people look wonderful when they’re old; the colour saturation of French decor and clothing makes black skin glow while leaving white skin washed out, as if its owner tried to flush out a case of mange.

The French love human beauty, while Americans resent it, preferring big, ruddy health. Canadians won’t hold beauty against you, if you’re nice about it.

Once again, the outer layer — skin — wins.

Through thick and thin

The psychological aspect of skin is entirely different. I always tell writers that they have to develop a rhino hide before they can expose themselves in print. But no one with a thick skin can write well. Entirely insulated, unfeeling people are veering towards the sociopathic. They can’t put themselves in the shoes of anyone who suffers, or indeed mildly objects to a circumstance. This is why most reporters don’t write well, except about quantifiable matters like how much fluid leaked onto the highway after the tanker overturned, that sort of thing.

On the other hand, thin-skinned people suffer deeply. Actors and comedians are skinless, which is what makes them good performers while also being the reason they should try another line of work . Who else faces rejection so often and so publicly? But there’s a lust for power in them that’s like a sucking chest wound. And existential suffering is fun in a sick way. It’s absorbing at least.

Like white paint, skin covers a multitude of sins. There’s a Coppertone ad now that advises readers to have their faces photographed with a UV camera and see how their skin really looks just beneath the surface. It shows the photo of a happy, smooth-faced woman next to her twin, a mottled, scarred, shadow creature presumably just pulled from an icy morgue tray. I cheered right up. Clearly, skin looks much better before it’s flayed. Who knew?

Or was that the “before” picture? Maybe I look great sub-epidermis. But no, Coppertone was trying to tell us that no matter how fresh and pretty we look, under the tent we’re just as hideous as the cosmetics companies always said.

The Coppertone people have rather missed the point. Why would I want a photo of me, two millimetres deeper? I’ve got a fetching set of features on my outside face, you silly people. Do I frame my stepchildren’s X-rays? No, I pose them in front of tulips and tell them they’ll be grateful one day.

Skinny dips

Strangely, naked skin does offend people. In Europe, public nudity is common, unremarked on and quite a blot on the landscape, if we’re being truthful. Here, women are tormented for taking advantage of the “mothers only” interlude at the pool. They are mocked for breastfeeding in public, despite the fact that nursing mothers somehow manage to hide their nipples, the only bit that interests the baby or anyone else. Is the most offensive of all skin that bit of the central breast?

Entire industries, swathes of industries, hum happily on the profits of coverup. Cosmetics manufacturers, Big Pharma, sunglass licensees, garment makers, luxury carmakers, makers of dimmer switches, they are only a few of the hundreds of millions working worldwide so we can gloss over our outer surfaces. In other words, so that we can leave the house without fainting, or worse, other people fainting.

I thought I was going to be able to write a way out of this, and conclude that superficiality isn’t all. But it is all. Skin takes a variety of forms, but its only purpose nowadays is to give us cover.

This Week

I was alone in the house this week and reverted to the life I had before I married. Without benefit of coffee (it has always been brought to me and I can’t be bothered) I stayed up all night every night watching a mixture of sublime rubbish (Caddyshack and a reality show with Ozzy Osbourne’s daughter having a nervous collapse in Japan) and the art of documentary (the BBC’s three-hour The Power of Nightmares, about the astounding resemblance of American neocons and ultra-purist Islamicists, both born to manufacture fear). I ate fried breaded chicken hearts and gizzards for dinner. Not as good as you’d think. I read I Hate Myself and Want to Die, by Tom Reynolds, an American guitarist. It dissects the 52 most depressing songs ever written and is hilarious. Yes, Céline Dion does approach a song like a leaf blower approaches a candy wrapper, and you’d think Hillary Clinton would know better.

I watched the first season of the U.S. version of The Office, thinking it was a TV version of the Globe and Mail newsroom. At 2 a.m. it became OK Parking, where I was a secretary one dreadful student summer. And at 4, it shimmered into every workplace I had ever entered.

Then I slept.