Theses Master's

Stories of the Skin: Exploring Women’s Skin through Oral History

Brooks, Ellen Brigid

The purpose of this oral history thesis is to examine women’s relationship with their skin, focusing on tattoos and scars that tell stories that are considered essential to a narrator’s identity. My initial research demonstrated that skin is inherently linked with the idea of self and the presentation of self to the outside world. I began this project with an interest in exploring the skin’s potential as a permanent physical archive, canvas, protective barrier and more. In order to do so, and to build on my academic research, it seemed obvious that oral history was an ideal vehicle because it would allow me to insert actual women’s voices into the conversation. While every narrator would have an individual story to tell, living with and interpreting the stories of our skin is a universal experience. The concentration on scars and tattoos (explained in greater detail below) would serve to narrow the focus. The project would be an attempt to give voice and agency to women who have something to say about what their skin says about them.

My original interest in skin and tattoos and scars came about organically, from conversations about my own tattoos, entertaining story swapping about “battle scars”, and an extremely compelling article from the New York Times about young Israelis getting tattoos to match their grandparents’ Holocaust tattoos. The article struck me especially, because of the diverse reactions and charged conversations that the tattoos inspired. It left me thinking about tattoos and scars, and tattoos as scars, and what it means to have these memories permanently marked on our bodies. As I began my oral history work I was motivated by the potential that oral history had to bring these stories and themes to light and now I am excited to present them publicly through the project website ( and to start a larger conversation about skin and embodiment.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Oral History Master of Arts
M.A., Columbia University
Published Here
September 25, 2013


This paper contains the research and methodology portion of the thesis project "Stories of the Skin." This paper is meant to accompany the final product which the website:, on which I explore the scar and tattoo narratives of eight women in order to explore the notion of skin as a communicator of the self. URL: