Allergic to Touch

“I’ve become this unofficial expert on dermatographia since there’s not a whole lot out there about it. People will just write me and ask for my opinion on how they should treat it. Sometimes they send me photographs of their own skin, even without me asking them to, which I love receiving.”

“Some people write their name or my name on their arm,” Russell said. “Other people do elaborate drawings and have a friend photograph it.”

Those responses led Russel to start a site called Skin Tome, where she is forming a dermatographia community predicated on sharing and lack of shame. She is also collecting information about dermatographia to help those with the condition, about which there aren’t many mainstream resources. Most doctors have little to offer on the subject, and as diseases go, addressing it is usually a relatively low priority. But the effects can be insidious. Skin conditions also manifest well inside of the skin.

“Most of the people who write me are embarrassed by their skin, they feel shame and try to hide the condition from other people,” Russell said. She sees consequence in her work. “I’ve had people say they’re afraid to be intimate. I also get a lot of teenagers who reach out to me. It’s so hard to be a teenager anyway, especially if you’re ashamed of how you look.”

That’s typified by the story of Jes Blackwell, who keeps in touch with Russell over their shared skin sensitivities. Blackwell writes, “Being an awkward, dorky, queer outcast in high school in Wisconsin was enough of an ordeal that I had to live with, but every time I had a tiny little itch on my face and I wasn’t thinking… BLAM!! A gigantic welt would appear on my already hormonally confused face. Needless to say, I did not date.”

But it’s not entirely lament; there's good in most of the confessionals. Blackwell goes on to write about being a child playing tic tac toe on her legs during long car rides, and leveraging her propensity for looking victimized to get her sister in trouble.

Ariana Page Russell/Skin Tome

“A lot of people don’t know they have it, and I think my images have played a big part in spreading the word about it,” Russell said. They might think they have blotchy or irritable skin. They try scratching their skin, realize it’s a condition with a name and a community, and that is therapy.

“There’s this statistic out there that five percent of people have it,” Russell said. “But I think it might be more common than that.”

#SkinWriting is an active hashtag among people with dermatographia on Twitter; and the Facebook page, “I’m a Skin Writer, I Have Dermatographism,” which Likes Russell’s work, has an active community of over 2,400 people. Many post skin-writing photos. Their skin is a responsive, living canvas that ages and changes; a barrier to the world that’s also connection to it. They share art and stories and triggers and treatments. Russell, for one, feels like her symptoms have become less noticeable since improving her diet and general health. “I drink a ton of water, go easy on alcohol and sugar, and eat whole foods, lots of fruits and vegetables.”

“When I first started photographing my dermatographic drawings I thought nobody would be interested in them,” she wrote recently on her site, “or even worse, people would find them totally gross.”

Presented by

James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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