Julia Martinčič: Skin
Written by Julia Martinčič
The job title is "VIP hostess". In the application, you must attach one full-length image, one close-up, and measurements of the chest, waist and hips. The measuring tape feels cold against my skin when I drape it around my body and mark the centimetres. I’m 19 years old and on my way to becoming a journalist, but first I have to make money.
Every night is James Bond night at the cabaret club in London. The musical artists sing theme songs while we run between the tables and fill up the wine glasses. The tables in my section light up in a turquoise shade. The other sections are lit in purple, yellow and green. I got the job through a recruitment company. My competence lay in my measurements. We were given a half-hour course in table setting and etiquette before they considered us ready to get on with it. If I have to open a wine bottle at the table, I lose my confidence the moment the bottle opener is halfway down the cork. It’s as if the strength in my arms disappears when the guests look at me.
As VIP hostesses, we must wear short, black dresses. The heels on our shoes must be low enough for us to run around on the sticky floor for 12 hours, but high enough for us to look exclusive while doing so. Our hair must always be worn down. We’re five blondes and one brunette. The girl who sells the most drinks in one night gets a bonus of £100. This one girl gets it night after night: she’s blonde, neat, with a caring smile and agile movements. I try to guess her hip measurements. After the shift is over, she’s asked to spend some time with the guests who’ve spent the most. The men circle around her, half polite and half vulturous, and I look from a distance as jealousy wells up in me: she won again.
Read 85-60-85 centimetres. I’m 13 and have just learnt the ideal measurements for a model by heart. Life is a long road branching in two directions: to capitalise on the body or the brain. So I buy a pair of high-heeled shoes and start practising. One leg in front of the other in the same staccato movement which I see the girls on America's Next Top Model use. But my body changes, so quickly it's like I can see it happening in the mirror I’m catwalking towards. The glands in my breasts become tender. Fat settles around the hips and thighs. Acne spreads across the forehead, down the cheekbones and along the neck, shoulders, back. I apply thick foundation on my face and upper body. The foundation makes my skin look like icing.
Sam Shuster, a professor emeritus of dermatology, asks if Karl Marx's critique of capitalism was a direct consequence of a skin disease he suffered from. Marx struggled with hidradenitis suppurativa, a disease that gives you foul-smelling boils in sensitive areas such as the crotch and armpits. The glands become swollen, and pus leaks out of inflamed openings in the skin. The pain is throbbing, as if the outgrowths have their own pulse. The disease got worse with age, and at times Marx was even unable to sit down. It eroded his confidence, says Shuster, who diagnosed him a few hundred years later by looking at his correspondence.
"The bourgeoisie will remember my boils until the day they die," he wrote to Friedrich Engels in 1867. Shuster believes that this was where his theory of alienation came into being, among boils and self-loathing. That it was a skin disease with revolutionary consequences.
Work is hard. First, my smile begins to cramp, then the rest of my body. My feet can’t cope with wearing high heels for hours on end. I hate working until three o'clock at night. I hate being in direct competition with my colleagues, but even more that I never win the bonus. But the salary is good for London, and I need the money to pay the rent. A few weeks into my job, I wake up and look in the mirror, and my body is covered in a rash. It has formed in spots above the kneecaps, above the chest and along the collarbones, on the side of the neck. I find it on my eyelids, along the scalp and behind my ears. I stroke my fingers over my new skin. The red spots are dry and rough, like the beginning of a shell.
“So, tell us a bit about yourself.”
I’m 24 years old and my outfit is bright and professional. I’m wearing makeup, but not too much. For the job interview, I’ve memorised some nice new words. I’m sitting in a large glass building in Oslo and I say that I’m "forward-leaning" and "solution-oriented" while I try to keep eye contact with the editors. I’ve worked full time for a couple of years, jumping from short-term contract to short-term contract. In job interviews, I say it gives me "a broad competence", even though it actually means that there’s been no offer at the end of the vacancies.
The conversation culminates in sports metaphors: I tell them I'm a team player. They say they want someone who thrives in a vibrant environment with colleagues with a strong competitive instinct. When they me ask how flexible I am, I want to pull my leg up to the ceiling like a ballerina. I say I'm a hungry journalist, and they give me my zero hour contract.
My choice of work is as much about self-realisation as it’s about earning a living. This is workism: the belief that work is not only necessary for economic production, but also at the centre of our identity and the very purpose of life. In an essay in The Atlantic, journalist Derek Thompson says that any policy to promote human welfare must therefore always encourage more work. It’s also a symptom of a class divide: work, for the poor and middle class, has remained a necessity, while for the educated elite it has been embraced as an office-clad religion. There is a nirvana, a place where passion and paid work merge into a higher entity.
"Do what you love and you won’t have to work a day in your life." Being hungry means working overtime without entering it into the payroll system. It means being the first one to speak up in meetings, and showing the middle managers that we're still there when they go home for the day. My body measurements are no longer a necessary part of my skill set, but I’m still in direct competition with everyone around me. I look at my colleagues and hope that I win this time. I sit down at my desk and find my hand lotion. The rash has been better lately. I only find the red spots behind the ears, on the elbows and the scalp. I apply the thick cream onto the dry skin on my elbows in calm, circular movements.
The editor waves me into an office where three of the four walls are made of glass. It's been six months since I started working and my vacancy is at its end. Now we’re two fish inside an aquarium. The most important thing for a young journalist is to be fearless and say yes to everything. “Competition sharpens us all, you know,” she says.
I nod and try to avoid scratching my scalp. The rash has been at its worst lately. I tend to scratch it until it bleeds under the hairline and around the temples. In some places the puss has solidified into yellow crusts. There are large flakes of dandruff attached to some strands of hair. If I scratch it, it will fall onto my shoulders like snowflakes.
Towards the end of the conversation, she says that she can probably offer me a further call-up position for a few more months, but she can’t really promise anything after that. She begins a sentence before stopping herself.
“How old are you again?” she asks.
“24,” I say.
“Then a permanent job is the last thing you need to think about,” she says, and continues:
“You have to appreciate the freedom and flexibility for as long as it lasts.”
I return to the open office landscape, but stay standing up. There are no available desks there. In recent months, we’ve tried a clean desk policy, where all the temps clean their desks at the end of the day. The next morning it’s first come, first served. But in recent months they’ve hired more journalists on zero-hour contracts, so there are no longer enough desks for everyone. I sit down on the sofa in the common area and balance the laptop on my lap. I watched the 15th season of Keeping up with the Kardashians the night before, and the tab is still open. In this episode, Kim Kardashian is at the dermatologist with a reddish rash on her leg. When he tells her that it’s psoriasis, she says:
“Psoriasis? I can’t have psoriasis.”
Her face scrunches up when the doctor says it can’t be cured, only be kept in check.
“My career is to do advertising campaigns, to be photographed in bathing suits. People don’t understand the pressure to be perfect,” Kim says.
The doctor takes off his glasses and scratches his white beard, before telling her that the best thing for the disease is to live a calmer life.
“That’s not possible for me,” she answers.
Later, Kim talks about how she keeps her psoriasis in check by injecting cortisone into her butt, and by having a diet based mainly on celery juice. I don’t treat my psoriasis in the hope that it will have revolutionary consequences. I sit on the couch at work and start digging my nails into my scalp, watching the dandruff fall into my lap. I feel the bloody crusts get stuck under my nails. The skin behind my ears can be torn off in large flakes. I’m shedding my skin.