the performance of skin

At a recent arts festival in Brooklyn, I came across a young performance artist who I approached after watching for several minutes.

My initial observation was of this: Human with hazelnut-colored skin, wearing white tank top and white pants, stands, moving only her upper body. I recognize her gestures, but cannot place how. She is moving head to the left and then right. Shrugging shoulders. And repeating. 

Finally, I go up to her and read the sign beside her, describing the piece.

Black or White or      by Reya Sehgal

Passersby are invited to beautify the artist’s face using skin color-based beauty products, creating a new kind of multicultural subject. Using Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” music video—an early ‘90s paean to multicultural love—as a framing device, this participatory piece explores themes of race and multiculturalism in the beauty industrial complex.

Beside the artist was a palate of colors squeezed out of skin foundation make-up. Her movements were copied from Jackson’s famous video and afterwards, she sat motionless, body covered by a white sheet, as passersby painted her face.

I told her I felt uncomfortable and I knew that was the intention.

I told her that I wished she had other colors like red or yellow (which have been used to describe skin tone and even race). 

She responded that these are the only colors available for people to use as foundation. These are what are marketed as skin tone shades.

I slowly walked away, allowing more people to enter this space and get involved. I drifted my eyes back toward her throughout the day, watching people cover her skin.

After about an hour, I walked up to her once the crowd dissipated. She was covered in thick gasps of browns and beiges. I grabbed a make-up sponge and dipped it into the bowl of water beside all the colors. Then, I moved toward her face and began wiping the paint away. I wanted to remember what her face looked like before the cover-up. I didn’t think any of those colors made her any more beautiful. I noticed myself feeling anger at all the layers of cover-up on her. With each scrape, I returned sponge back into the water, heading back toward her face to remove more. No matter how much I tried swiping at the oily make-up, it wouldn’t come off. I realized she was succeeding in this performance. I was not only thinking of race: color, blending, what is added/what is taken away, but the anger of what is hidden, what feels like it needs to be hidden.

How beauty is marketed. How we are encouraged to cover up. To blend. To smooth.

I have never used foundation, nor do I currently wear any make-up. My skin is blotchy and freckled and scarred and dry. Those around me would title my skin: white, though I’m not sure what shade that would be called in the land of make-up.

There have been times in my life where I dumped mascara onto my lashes or attempted a layer of color on my eyelids. I never quite made it work. I certainly didn’t feel any more or less beautiful. I felt covered up. I definitely felt in drag.

Within the construct of beauty, a lot of pain exists. Pressure. To hide what we are often told to hide. To brighten what is told is too dark.

I wonder what would happen if we all sat with palates of colors beside us… would others paint us and would anyone try to erase away what exists.

Would anyone just leave a face….a body…..alone….



the only air we need brushing our bodies is the kind that leaves us alone.

This is why I remove my clothes in performance (sometimes). To remind others that skin is not as smooth as the billboards insist. Scars are not flaws, but art forms on our skin. Discoloration on flesh does not have to be evened out. Freckles are like shadows of constellations. All these imperfections are actually poems that get to be explained and sung and turned into movements or moments of celebratory emphasis.

do not expect what you’re expecting

When you are least prepared, someone somewhere will give you flowers. They will not come with packet full of powder meant to dilute water into something stronger than tap. They will not be wrapped in cellophane or tissue paper. The stems will not be choked in ribbon and there will not be a portable shelter like vase or pot to house them in. They will not be carefully cut or angled toward a collision of colors.

These flowers will still reek of earth. They will be clumsy and stolen. They will still have bees burrowed into their petals.

They will be far more beautiful than any florist’s version because these flowers will be tangled into the fleshy fondle of her fingers.


When I was a child, for a brief time, my father delivered flowers to my mother every Friday. They arrived like romantic love letters hidden inside various wildflowers and baby’s breath. Each bouquet was different and boasted the most glorious scents and colors. As quickly as this ritual began, it ended just the same.

There have been many times in my life where flowers found their way toward me. Weaved into bicycle basket. Clasped by rubber windshield washer against cracked car window. Hidden in messy, black converse. Beneath pillow. Worn within the knots of my hair. Delivered to a bar on an evening when poetry got pushed through the deepest of microphones.

My favorite way of getting flowers is noticing them in their natural setting. I like studying their grip and pondering how deep their roots go. I do not need to take them home to fondle their silky texture. Sometimes, romance needs to stay where it first began. To honor its origin without ripping it out.

And put your phones away. All this beauty will still exist even if you do not photograph it. All of this elegance is far more romantic when we just digest its moment.

And no one needs to know. Because the one who first weaved that dandelion, sparkling and golden, within fingers is all that matters now.

write into [the] dark

What are you blooming up there in the wind of outer space. I am collaborating with you, moon. On a morning where you refused to exit stage left, I noticed your sleepy yawn. I parted my mouth not quite as wide as yours and we welcomed in each others’ breath. Mine smelled of peanut butter and poetry; I might describe yours as bergamot and soapy. Tell me about the context of your question marks stabbing at your cheeks. What is it you want to say, moon. There is no need for shyness when the earth is our matchmaker and it seems we have been listening to the same song for decades. You are a rhapsody in blue. You are the one who steals moments and there are no photographs that can compete with the stun you exude from all the way up there. Water is like happiness and I am floating my way in rain and pre-dawn dew toward your lust.

a lover called moon

On a night where lost is everywhere, you look up and there is a face without judgement without declaratives or requests. A face without gender. It is no more remorseful than proud. It exists without fear of heights because it is so far up no yoga practice could stretch limbs enough to reach it. Accept this. It’s not about reach, but realization. You are overwhelmed on this night and last night and tomorrow night but in this moment you gather insight from this nightlight. Your fears hide inside imaginary pockets. You are monogamous with this moon; there is no one else that matters. No where you need to be and there is nothing you need to say. Put your pen and notebook away. You will remember how you feel in this moment because it will dig its satellite into your scars. Each one of them. Don’t make a wish; this is not about that. If you must if you must pray, use your body as a gesture of psalms. People pass you during this moment and you will want to tell them to look up too but they will notice when they’re ready. For now, it is you. And isn’t this romantic. And isn’t this the lover you have been searching for: far enough as to not smother away your senses and silences; gender neutral (yes, because your queerness is suddenly blurring into something that begs for shapes such as these that cannot be marked into a category). How beautiful how beautiful but this is not not about beauty. When you must part because the cold air tangles with your breaths so you must go inside and this moon lover will not follow you in like the others, you say goodbye. Do not weep in anticipation of missing it. The moon still exists even if you no longer notice it. When you are ready or warm, go back outside to sing it goodnight. Or remain there in its silent glow and wonder what it’s like to be so high.

we arrived in this naked

There is no idea but to cover up or clarify how those folds got there.

And if belly is soft then explain that a baby once grew inside it or if breasts lack complacency, make sure to convince them that it’s from feeding or genetics. Or lie about exercise regime or explain that work hours overlap possibility of sit-ups or weight lifts.

Bodies are like snowflakes are like fallen secrets pressed against windows are like reflections are like sharp implements are like dangerous exaggerations are like predators.

And in a room full of humans, take note of the shapes that take shape within the shape of a space.

Ninety-degree angles and triangular justifications and octagons and rectangles and its been awhile since my body existed inside a classroom where numbers were examined but I’m quite sure there is a reason for all these symbols and figures to differ.

I disrobe and replace mirror with an audience / distract eyes with poetry so stretchmarks are an afterthought.

But don’t all our bodies stretch and without those marks couldn’t we assume that body as one of static…no movement…no evolution of self?

It’s ok that you notice the blurry lines on my body. The ones beside the scars. The ones that arrived as I arrived into my bones.

We all began as nudes. As empty. As exotic folds. Put away your irons and embrace the wrinkles and grooves.

Clothes are just an accessory; what whispers underneath is the truth of beauty.

(it’s just) hair.

I am twenty-three. Living in a state where I curve my body in such a way to resemble a scoop. A ladle, attempting to gather friends and experiences. On a night called Saturday, I remain in the bathroom for much longer than one should with plugged-in plastic hair iron, trying to turn my curls into heterosexuals.

Or simply: straight.

And on this particular night, I notice a difference in the way I am perceived. My smooth strands slow down the blinking and suddenly I am hating myself because: I. Feel. Pretty. And that hatred rises from the fact that I am feeling this way just because my knots are gone.

Many years later, I attempt this unbending of hair once again. I take heated iron to hair and remove the volume twisting around my head like red wind. I take coconut oil to smooth away the stubborn locks. When I look up and into the mirror, someone else exists. This is not me.


What is your hair regimen?

When I was younger, my grandmother treated my curls like delicate trophies. Don’t ever cut this, she would tell me. But if you do, please save some for me.

This led to years of hoarding my cut ends in plastic shopping bags each time I clipped away length. Even now, a small bag full from my last haircut rests in a box marked alter even though she is no longer here. I still keep my curls for her.

My relationship to my hair is spotty. Sometimes I feel enlightened by it, while othertimes it is more of a burden. Hair is what I notice first on the humans who pass me by. It is what often attracts me to another. I fall in love with their hair: afro, mohawk, mullet, bleached or shaved…..then, I start to fall in love with who the strands belong to.

Media tells me that curly is just not as pretty as straight. This is why we go to salons and spend our money on chemical straighteners. But the curls are really just like tangled words, a nest of magic, knotted gestures.

I never brush it. And I’ve been told shampoo should be left behind. Maybe these curls look messy to you and perhaps your fingers get caught when you rub at my scalp, but I’m quite content with this chaotic mane and I think I’m going to stay far away from its heterosexual counterpart. My hair was born to be crooked and queer; I think it’s time I just let it be.

how to remove the claustrophobia and turn it into a poem.

Awake to the sound of too much memory inside me, clogging up the zippers sewed into my skin called scars.

Before sleep, I heard a child speak about beauty. How it cluttered up her mind and confused her into obsession. When I was a child I wore pants until they fell off of me–threads becoming undone. I couldn’t wait to wear make-up and then when I could I preferred looking ghostly or homely or colorful only on the inside.

People rarely remain inside their disfigurations. They cover it up, melt it, insert or take away or laser it off.

My roots are showing; let me paint them a lighter hue. My belly is thickening. Instead of poeming, I’ll sit up and down and up and down and crunch and crunch and force tension to form.

How to live inside a moment. Really. Do we do this anymore? Are we present inside a sight? Though I drink coffee, I am also writing a sentence and catching up with a friend and reading a letter and washing dishes. How to remove the claustrophobia of multi-tasked rushing and slow down toward just one breath or bite or swallow or word.


First thing I notice when I am present is the haunting of black ink on my skin on my hand on the left one near my thumb. Reminders because my mind is so webbed, is so crowded is so removed from itself, I must write on my body to remember how to live or what to buy or what to eat:

fennel. pickles. magnets. newspaper.

I look down and notice my lap, covered in borrowed brown writing blanket. I look up and notice nude tree outside my window, bark wrinkled like elephant skin. I look inside myself and feel hunger, body gathering breaths, pushing them out like invisible babies floating into the air. I gave birth to those inhales and exhales. They are mine! I do not answer phone which rings. I do not click on anything outside of this box. I am singular-tasking. I am present. I am here. I am I am slowing down.

mathematics of beauty

Days do not end, they bloat. They infect. They fall down and get all scraped up and bloodied and then a scab forms and it gets picked at by a different day and then a new scab forms and then and then a scar. Days are like scars. Persistent and showy.

Today may be the final day of this earth. But enough about that.

On subway train where students are high off the fumes of Winter Break, I overhear a lecture on beauty.

Enter the Professor. Assumed (since he sits down for this lecture) to be about 5’11. Young but eager bones. Brown, short cropped hair. Brown skin. Narrow mouth. His shoes are scuffed. He speaks:

“She’s eighty-five percent Puerto Rican and the rest is messy. I’d say she’s a 7.”


Enter the student. Not me, of course. I am the observer. The auditor of this class. I’m not receiving a grade, so I just kind of sit, out of view.

The student is much shorter, also sitting. 5’4, maybe? He has on a handsome necktie and his pants are too short. I notice his socks, off white but once white. His shoes are newly polished. He speaks:

7 is good, right?”

Professor: If you got a 70 on your test, would you think that was good?

Student: Depends on if it was a hard test.

Professor: A 7 is ugly. She’s too short. Like 4′ ll.

Student: What’s wrong with that?

Professor: I know lots of 8’s but I’m looking for 9’s. 10’s don’t exist unless you’re reading like Maxim or somethin’. Those girls aren’t real though.

Student: I’ll take a 6. They’re fine too. What about half numbers?


And I immediately hate myself for thinking this, but….I wonder what number I am. If there is a decimal point, can I be rounded up and what number would I give myself?


Well, I’m not too tall, so there goes the 10. My breasts are small (thankfully…though I wish they were smaller). That would drop my number down for others but bring it back up for me. My hair is red like a house fire. Numbers up once again. Oh, but there’s all those scars. Numbers down. I’m promiscuous sexually open! Numbers are fighting each other. They remain in place. I’m well-educated. Numbers back up. But I’m guarded and have major trust issues and there’s all that trauma and and numbers are plunging. I’m clean. I cook quite well and I have a healthy appetite. Numbers up for the former but the appetite does lead to expanding body. I’m ok with this, though others may not be. Numbers down. I don’t like jewelry or expensive things; I prefer cheesecake and books. Numbers up (though some may want me to lay off the sweets). I don’t have a six-pack and my legs are hairy and I prefer Woody Allen to Tarantino and I don’t chug beer and and. Numbers are in the negatives! I love giving blow jobs but not to biological penises. I’m fatty. I’m impulsive. I’m moody. I’m I’m I’m…

not a number.

an ode to the green-dressed woman…

…in red baseball hat which read: OBEY, who curves her body in a hip-hop way, curled lips into teeth, bent knees in the direction of the moon (which I had to imagine since we were underground).

I feel the need to admit that when you lifted your right leg in a dance move that can only be described as the concrete scrape, I saw your underwear. And I only committed to my stare for as long as I did because the color was nude or blanched peach like your skin and I suddenly felt closer to you than to myself.

Your fingernails match your dress and I wondered which area of your body gained the green first.

If I wasn’t so shy insecure withdrawn self-conscious, I’d whisper into your ear: jungle green, the shade of crayon you represent.

When the local 4 train arrived, I sat across from you. Tried to ignore the fullness of my bladder by studying the various shapes of moles and freckles on your calves.

Can I call your eyes slate? How about I compare their color to the time of night when black, grey and green compete with the stars.

Are you a dancer or do you just dance well?

Beneath your red cap, your brown hair is lopsided. Do you know how you turn beautiful into a language, rather than just a word?

What happened was I bent my neck down, wrote notes into my notebook for a length of time I lost track of, but when I looked up you were gone. Your red baseball cap was on your friend’s head. The other dancer. Lithe male with deeply padded lips. You got off at Grand Army Plaza or Eastern Parkway. You live somewhere near to me. More importantly, you live on this earth. I wanted to watch your exit. Would you twist and hop your way off this train like you did on the subway platform? Would you twirl, leap, pop your limbs through the double doors?

I missed your finale.