As a kid I remember being told, pretty often, that I needed to grow a thicker skin. And as evidenced by my photo file, this issue still hangs over me. Apparently I have a fascination, teetering on obsession, with fruit and vegetable skins, husks, eggshells, peels. The pictures here, seriously? They’re narrowed down from dozens more.
Let’s spread this out and discuss.
I’ve noticed lately, and this is new, that people buying fresh corn at the store or farm stand want to strip the ears from the husks right then and there.
What I don’t think they know is once it’s off the stalk, an ear of corn goes through its own version of The Change: its ethereal sweetness begins to turn to bland starch.
What’s more, the silky corn husk has a job: to protect the kernels from the blazing heat of the summer sun and from insects…and to keep its sweetness inside and intact as long as possible. Stripping the ear too soon of its husk accelerates the change to starch. For corn at its tender, authentic best, you want to grab it freshly picked and resist husking until just before cooking.* Tip.
Moving on to the lychee above. It’s also a hot-weather plant, a tropical fruit. It’s subject to erratic weather—harsh sunlight, drenching rains, and powerful winds, not to mention tropical bugs, which are pretty much legend when it comes to voracity.
Yet the lychee’s skin is beautiful—speckled, transparent, and surprisingly dense. When ripe, the fruit is juicy, almost syrupy, like a miniature rum punch without the risk of migraine.
That lovely complex skin protects the fruit, allowing it to stay wholly and happily itself until it’s ready to be enjoyed.
Last example: the peach, yet another summer-grower. That’s its skin above. When a peach is picked hard enough to break the windshield on my Accord and shipped in from East Jesus Nowhere, it never gets truly ripe. Its skin needs to be sliced off with a sharp paring knife; the fruit knows it’s not ready, and it puts up a fight.
On the other hand, if a peach is picked at its peak, the skin will peel right off. You can even peel it with your fingers.**
People have proper tangible skins, of course. But we also like to talk about having a figurative skin, as I mention way above. It’s that intangible skin that we wrap ourselves in, as a protective barrier, until we’re ready to drop it.
It can take a lot to shed that skin. It safeguards our insecurities, our awkward histories, what have you. The fear of exposing vulnerabilities, for most humans, is just one skinny rung down from the fear of the guy with the hoodie and sickle. It takes trust, stones, patience, and a heap of good intuition.
Having a thick skin is a good idea. But it’s not something you can just ‘get’, like picking up soup bones at the butcher’s. It has to be real, earned, owned. We’ve all met—or been—people who have pretended to be thick-skinned. It shows. Feigning toughness, bravado—that’s a mask. Underneath we’re just as fragile as those delicate kernels and fruits above.
And (this is important) no matter how thick that skin is, even if it’s like the lychee’s, we need to make sure it’s yielding. A solid protective layer is a good thing; heck, I think it’s essential in this nutty world. But it’s not intended to keep us under lock and key.
A skin that works for us comes from the inside, despite what the Aveeno ads tell us. It should be constructed in such a way that it can be dropped when we want it dropped, because there will be times when we want to reveal our authentic selves. It should work for us.
With people who want to scald you, drench you, peck at you? Stay behind it, safe as the corn and lychee are from the elements and the bugs.
With trusted friends? Take it off with confidence, as easily as the ripe peach skin peels away from the fruit.
And here’s the cool thing, another version of the semi-colon, symbol of a pause before continuing: You can always reassess, regroup, and move again when you’re ready. So you took off your skin too soon, or for the wrong people, and it wasn’t the best idea. When you happen upon the right time with the right people, the ones who will relish the true, sweet, occasionally but somehow charmingly weird you, you can opt to take it off again. Until then, you can always put it back on and walk away cocky.
You get to choose.
*In the U.S. you can do this now through September.
**To find out of a peach is ripe, press on it very gently with a fingertip. If it gives a bit, pick it. Again, now’s the time, but they’re almost gone. Quick. Hit the orchard. Play hooky.