‘Your face is disgusting.’ ‘Do you ever wash your face?’ ‘That’s so gross.’
This is what I told myself the people around me were thinking when they saw my acne-inflamed skin. Because for a long time, I convinced myself that people were just as repelled by my acne as I was by it.
My skin first started getting ‘bad’ – but why the hell do we see skin that is not perfectly smooth and clear as ‘bad’? – when I was sixteen. I was incredibly self-conscious about it; a five-year stint at a girls’ grammar school and my own unhealthy desire for perfection in all aspects of my life, both of which contributed to my painfully low self-esteem, had taught me that you needed to fit in. ‘Fitting in’ meant being physically attractive, and ‘physically attractive’ meant having ‘good’ skin, the kind that I thought all of my classmates had, the kind that you see on every billboard and in every fashion magazine advert. I tried all sorts of gels, creams, face washes, cleansers, scrubs, each one promising noticeably clearer skin and none of them delivering on this promise.
Why the hell do we see skin that is not perfectly smooth and clear as ‘bad’?
Possibly the most important thing I’ve learnt in my journey of acne-discovery is that everyone’s skin will respond in different ways to different treatments, and what works for one person will not necessarily work for another person – so for some people, these treatments might be successful. Meanwhile, I could just about manage to cover up my acne with a trusty concealer and foundation – I felt like I had to cover it in some way, as the thought of revealing my face with no make-up on terrified me (shout-out to the memes making totally hilarious jokes about people using make-up to try and cover up acne: getting likes at the expense of something that can actually be very upsetting and isolating is not funny). That lasted until one notable incident when I was working part-time at a Co-Op and a man asked me if I had chicken pox because my face was “so red and blotchy”.
I politely pretended to laugh it off, but inside I was a bubbling cauldron of shame, embarrassment and self-loathing. All I could think was, ‘What’s wrong with me? How many other people are just too polite to tell me how bad I look?’, rather than, ‘Has he never seen someone with acne before?’, or even, ‘What’s wrong with him?’. This remark pushed me to go the doctor, to sit in the waiting room with a completely bare face, feeling like everyone had their eyes on me, and then to try and look the doctor in the eye and tell her that I’d come about “some spots”. I felt ashamed, because I was convinced I was wasting her time and that, in comparison with the other patients she had seen that day, me and my angry red skin were ‘trivial’ and ‘unimportant’.
I was proved wrong. Yes, there are more important issues than acne, but when acne has an impact on your life – when it affects your confidence and makes simple things like going out of the door without make-up virtually impossible – then that is more than a valid enough reason to seek help and support. Sometimes, no matter what people say, you don’t ‘grow out’ of acne, and it won’t miraculously clear if you don’t eat chocolate/go outside more/wear less makeup, or any other ‘miracle cure’ on the internet. The doctor listened to me, prescribed me a topical ointment and, when that didn’t work, antibiotics. She didn’t respond with the annoyance I had expected and, in doing so, she put me on the first step towards recognising that what my inner critic told me did not align with what other people actually thought.
When acne has an impact on your life – when it affects your confidence and makes simple things like going out of the door without make-up virtually impossible – then that is more than a valid enough reason to seek help and support
It’s taken a long time to find something that works, and my skin is still far from blemish-free – but I’m beginning to accept that that’s OK. It’s taken a lot of 2am thinking sessions, a tonne of tear-soaked tissues, and the hurt of someone telling me that if I got a boyfriend, I’d feel less self-conscious about it (yes, seriously). But I’ve realised that a lot of the time, I do tend to transfer my own negative thoughts about myself on to other people and believe that they have the same low opinion of me as I do of myself. When I’m speaking with people, I don’t even notice that they have acne unless I’m specifically looking for it, and most people are exactly the same. It is, of course, much easier to be aware of all these things than to implement them in real life, and there are many other issues regarding self-confidence that I need to address. However, it’s a solid step in the right direction.
Prescription medication is not a perfect solution to dealing with acne, but for me it was a good solution. I strongly believe that beauty is so much more than skin deep and it really shouldn’t matter what you look like. Nonetheless, I also believe that it’s important to feel as confident and as happy in yourself as possible, and my personal way of achieving this – along with support of family and friends, and, most importantly, a generous dose of self-love – was feeling more in control of my skin.