The reality of living with acne

“Isaine, if you don’t feel well you can step out of class for a bit, only if you need to,” said my French literature teacher. I left the classroom in front of all my classmates, all I could feel was their eyes staring at me, my embarrassment growing every time I took a step closer to the door.

I ran to the nearest bathroom, locked myself in and broke down in tears.

I couldn’t bear looking at myself in the mirror, I could feel the tears running down my face, washing away the layers of foundation I had on it. I started to panic. Would l I have to go back to class and face everyone in the state I was in? The thought of them seeing my face haunted me.

I could feel them on my face, on my back, and on my arms. They were everywhere. The pimples, the acne that covered my body. It was the cause of my being unwell, something to be ashamed of. I wanted to tear the skin off my face, erase it all, but I was well aware that wasn’t going to happen.

I started having acne when I was 13, I was the first one of my friends, but it wasn’t much of a worry at that time. Many would say it’s very common for a young teenage girl to have a bit of acne: a pimple here and there won’t do any harm. However, as I grew up my acne started to get worse. I tried almost everything: the pills, various antibiotics, creams, but nothing would really work — it wasn’t going away. 

When I came back from Australia at the age of 16, after spending three months by the beach enjoying the sunshine, I went through an emotional shock when I arrived at my hometown on a rainy day in November. The closer I was to ‘home’, the worst my skin became.

I was then diagnosed with cystic acne, a severe type in which the pores in the skin become blocked, leading to infection and inflammation. I got to the point where I couldn’t stand to look at my own reflection — I avoided any reflective surface and spent most of my days with my blinds closed, not wanting to face myself or the world.

“I was ashamed and wanted to be left alone.”

Acne became my personal hell. Fearing the judgment of others, I let it take over my life. I created my own technique to do my make-up so I could avoid seeing the state of my skin — I would cover my bathroom window with a towel and only switch one light, in order to see just enough to do my make-up, but not too much.

Some mornings, I would re-do my make-up once, twice or even three times. I was never happy with the result. I kept applying layers and layers of foundation but was never satisfied with the way my skin looked.

A study conducted by The British Skin Foundation, found that 95% of acne sufferers said the condition impacts their daily lives and 63% experience lower self-confidence. More than a third of people self-harm or have considered it because of their acne. It can also be a contributing factor to depression and even suicide.

This leads me to that fateful day when one of my classmates started commenting my skin: “Why do you put all that foundation? What do you have to hide?” The rest is blurred emotion and faded memories. All I recall was that the conversation ended with her giving me a ‘little slap’ (as she described it) on the face. She was just “messing around”.

However, I sat in class not really sure what exactly happened: there was a great lapse on the timeline of events, a temporal void. Then it hit me: I realised what impact acne had on my mental health and I broke down.

Once I came back from the bathroom, I went to the infirmary. All I wanted was to go home but the school wasn’t allowed to send any students home without a ‘valid reason’. I had to face the nurse, then my dad. I was incapable of explaining what had happened, in class or in my head. I was ashamed and wanted to be left alone.

Gabriella at age 22

Gabriella Watts at age 22 [Gabriella Watts]

But the real issue in all of this was me. I let acne take over my life, I tangled myself into this problem which shouldn’t have had to become one. Incapable of taking my make-up off in front of other people, always making excuses when it came to swimming lessons and escaping situations which involved too much social interaction; this is where it had led me.

At this moment I realised how much negativity I was sending my way. A study by the University of Limerick, proved the existence of a direct link between the perceived negative stigma of having acne and higher levels of psychological distress, anxiety, and depression. That is to say, those who are exposed to traditional western beauty standards have a higher propensity to suffer from high levels of stress, anxiety, and depression.

After talking through all the possibilities to cure my acne, my dermatologist put me on the strongest medication available: Roaccutane. It works by reducing the amount of the oily substance (i.e. sebum) produced by the glands in your skin, reducing bacteria and inflammation and opening clogged pores. It took me eight long months of treatment before my skin was clear.

Society has always labelled acne as something ‘abnormal’. There is a substantial social stigma attached to not having ‘good’ skin. People with acne will often be categorised as people who are not taking care of their skin or who have an unhealthy diet. Society and its consequent beauty standards, often push people to buy tons of cosmetics to ‘solve’ this condition or hide it away, under layers and layers of foundation.

Amanda Michelena is a 23 year-old fashion stylist based in London, she has suffered from acne since she was a teenager. Her type of skin and acne was never severe but it didn’t stop her from having insecurities.

“I have been through a fair amount of treatments to heal and recover my skin. I will spend long hours reading and researching about my skin type, how the rest of my body relates to it, and any kind of influences that can change the condition of it,” she explained.

“But the real problem in all this was me. I let acne took over my life, I lock myself into this problem which shouldn’t have to be one.”

To her, social media pressure isn’t something new. In the last hundred years, the commercialisation and mass media coverage of the beauty industry is just part another part of the western culture. A culture that makes us believe that beauty means happiness and success, “social media just allowed us to see more of what people, in general, feels towards beauty, and yes, most of us feel more attracted to people with healthier skin, but to me, they just happen to win the lottery in genetics, nothing more than that,” Michelena said.

Instagram made us all curators of a life nobody has. Amanda has experienced the toxicity of social media, first-hand: “It has affected my mental well being by relying almost on it, for almost everything. As much as the filters make me look fabulous on the internet, in real life my skin won’t get any better if I don’t do anything that makes it healthier. So I have come to the conclusion to determined who I am as a person and make peace with it, rather than to make a way through filters and try to convince everyone I am ‘sort of’ perfect.”

Em Ford posing for the campaign Redefine:pretty [Em Ford]

Young people are easily influenced by everything they see in a magazine, on TV, or social media. I was there, I tried to achieve the impossible. Not everyone has perfect skin. In the UK, 48% of people report having acne at some point in their lives, and 19% have had it over the age of 25. A study by the UK charity Girlguiding, showed that more than a third (35%) of girls aged between 11 and 21 critically compare their lives with others’ — that being the biggest cause of internet-related stress.

Em Ford (aka My Pale Skin) is a beauty and make-up Vlogger and YouTuber. From tutorials to short films, she talks about acne and skin positivity. She is determined to shift the stigma around beauty and help to put an end to the unnecessary judgement women have on their appearance. She wrote and produced her first video in 2015 – You Look Disgusting highlights and examines the online abuse she suffered as a result of sharing her acne with her audience.

In November 2018, she has launched her new project, Redefine Pretty – produced and directed by Ford as part of the YouTube Creators for Change, her project looks at women’s relationship with their appearance and what society defines as ‘pretty’. The aim is to give all women the confidence to live their lives without the fear of being judged for their appearance.

In the video, Ford collaborates with Vincent Walsh, professor of Human Brain Research at UCL, to test something which has never been proven in the world of science before: the brain’s reaction when faced with images showing models wearing make-up, and not wearing make-up, nor having been through any sort retouches.

“I set out wanting to discover if today’s ‘beauty standards’ are to blame for the way we see and feel about ourselves,” said Ford. “From visible skin conditions such as acne, scarring, and birthmarks, to sharing why representation is so important in the media and society. This is a heartbreakingly real picture of how ‘beauty’ is measured, and if it’s truly ever achievable.”

Her project, Redefine Pretty is about real women, real stories and shining a light on the harsh reality, and psychological effects beauty standards place on women. “I want to empower all women with the confidence to live their lives without the feeling of being judged for their appearance. Beyond that, it leaves one question: What effect would change these negative standards of ‘beauty’, have on young women?” she added.

Gabriella Watts was one of the young women featured in the video. She was around ten years-old when she first started getting spots. Her mum used to tell her: “Since you’ve got them so young, you probably won’t get them when you’re older.” Her acne increased when she was 19 – it was gradual at first and then it hit like a snowstorm.

She is now 22 and still suffers from mild acne on her cheeks, chin, chest, and back. “I haven’t had any treatment for my acne, however, I’ve made a huge conscious effort to clean up my diet,” she explained. “I’ve always been health conscious and in tune with my body, but I suffer from my mental health and I get easily stressed out which affects my stomach and, in turn, affects my skin,” she added.

To her, the image that social media networks facilitate is totally unrealistic. “I’m a digital marketer so I love social media. But just like everything else in the world, there’s good and bad.”

She explained that she still falls into a bad habit of comparing her life to others. However, these photographs are merely one second of these people’s lives. “We only see the perfect captured moment that they picked from the other 50 photos they took that day. We are all human, at the end of the day we’re all the same, made of skin and bone,” Watts said.

Filming Redefine Pretty took her completely out of her comfort zone: “I’m a huge introvert, so knowing I’ll be meeting new people and being on camera terrified me. But nothing great happens in comfort zones. Meeting likewise women and Em Ford was fantastic,” she added

“I learned that you’re never alone. No matter what you’re going through. To be in a room with other barefaced women with acne was oddly reassuring. I didn’t feel like the ‘odd one out’ for once.”

Acne has gained a lot of attention over the last few years. Propelled by the body and skin positivity movements. Both criticise social media for creating unattainable beauty standards. Those who back the movements are changing the role of social media platforms, using them to fight back and share pictures of their bare face and make-up free selves.

With celebrities joining the movement such as Justin Bieber and Kendall Jenner, who have embraced their acne ‘publicly’, the movement is only getting bigger, offering people to relate to, and perhaps making those who suffer from the condition feel less alone.

The British Journal of Dermatology found that there is a 63% increased risk of depression for someone with acne compared with those with a clear skin. Matt Traube, a psychotherapist in San Luis Obispo, California, who specialises in skin conditions told The New York Times: “Acne is incredibly debilitating, the mind and body are intimately connected. And when you’re already depressed, acne presents an extra challenge to the situation.”

“Celebrities have the same insecurities, so for them to give people the opportunity to see their human qualities, it changes everything. We’re social creatures, we want to belong — and when we have that social support, that feeling of community, that will help reduce the risk of depression,” Traube added.

My acne returned six months after my treatment of Roaccutane, it wasn’t as serious as the cystic acne I had before. So I learned to live with it, I would always have one or two pimples on my face but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t live with. However, when I turned 20 my acne worsened. I was once again affected by it mentally. Whether I was at home or on holiday, I still had the need to hide away.

Christmas 2017 was a turning point for me. I explained to my parents that I couldn’t deal with this disease anymore. It was sucking the life out of me. I was 21 and I wanted to be done with this burden I had been carrying for almost 10 years.

Gabriella Watts make-up free [Gabrielle Watts]

A few months later, after two or three dermatologists, and a long time of waiting, I started my second Roaccutane treatment for another eight months. At the time I am writing this article, I have a month left until my treatment is over. My face and my back are acne free, but I keep fearing that once I finish the treatment my acne will come back.

The skin positivity movement did help me – I felt like I wasn’t alone anymore, that I should love myself despite having acne. However, it wasn’t something I was capable of doing fully. I do have self-love and accept that my skin will never be ‘perfect’; however, this experience did hinder my self-acceptance to a certain extent.

Michelena explained that she has accepted herself with all her imperfections: “But it doesn’t mean I don’t have bad days, in almost any aspect of our lives we can have insecurities, but it is important to have a good and honest relationship with ourselves to fight mean thoughts, it’s not easy but it feels amazingly good.”

She thinks these campaigns and social movements are helpful for everyone to speak about what we all think already. They make us start a conversation about the common problems we face every day, regardless of any skin condition someone could have.

“My truth is that beauty relies upon understanding that we all have similar problems and can do something to help. Tolerance came up when I fully understood that the very first person that I care the most and I have control over, is myself. In that order, nobody but me can change my mind about what is best for me,” she explained.

Watts told me that nothing interesting came from being ‘perfect’: “Don’t let something small stop you from enjoying life and support your friends and family. Share your ‘flaws’, your successes, the good, the bad and never let Instagram ‘beauty’ dictate your perception of beauty.”

Hearing all these women stories made me realise how strong one can be, and how no one should be able to define your beauty due to your acne or any other skin condition. This was a wake-up call on how much I allowed acne to take over my life, and how unhealthy it can be if we let it define who we are. Being acne free for a little while now, I do feel much more confident and happy. There are even days where I don’t put makeup on.

The path of self-love is a hard one to navigate, I am learning to see myself in a new light while trying not to escape from seeing myself the way I truly am. Slowly but surely I am learning how to ensure that I won’t let my acne define me.

 

 

 

 


Featured Image by Isabell Winter via Unsplash CC

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