Back then, I thought I knew better than my body when it came to such matters, and I would cause big, open lesions to form on my skin while trying to excavate puss and sebum. Then, I would medicate those wounds with healthy dollops of moisturizer, benzoyl peroxide cream, or clay face masks that I would keep on my face whenever I wasn't in public. Sometimes I would even rock a Band-Aid, 50 Cent style. I wanted to heal, but I also didn't want to see my skin and what I had done to it. Over time, I knew what I was doing was making my skin progressively worse, but I didn't think there was any way out.
To go out in public — even just to the post office — required an elaborate makeover of very deliberately placed concealer and powder. Of course, as any makeup wearer knows, you can't easily cover an open wound. (Sometimes I disguised them as beauty marks.) But if my tactics weren't working, I would cancel plans with friends to stay home, away from people. I would stay home from school, "sick."
I can't overstate how consuming and stressful this was. My face was on my mind all the time.
I continued to go through phases of crash skin-care routines throughout college. Honey. Hydrogen peroxide. Hair conditioner as cleanser. Weird masks I concocted out of, like, apples and oatmeal. I’ve never been addicted to drugs, but I can imagine my obsession was similar; one week was amazing, the next week I was hideous. At best, it was an odd habit. At worst, it was a manifestation of a legitimate neurosis.
I can't overstate how consuming and stressful this was. My face was on my mind all the time. I knew every part of it like a queen knows her kingdom, all disjointed and separated into sectors. The dry, crusty chin. The wide expanse of greasy forehead. The wild card cystic-acne jawline. The miscreant temples.
When I look at pictures of myself in my teens and early 20s, I think I look all right — good, even. These pictures are all suspiciously perfect, because back then I highly curated my photographic presence. I would never have posted a picture of myself without a lot of makeup on. I got into graphic design as a teenager, and I learned how to use Photoshop, in part so I could retouch my undereye circles, smile lines, and acne. I didn’t fit in at my rural North Carolina high school, so I wanted to appear perfect in the places I did fit in: social media networks.
I associated my self-worth directly with my appearance, even though, intellectually, I knew that was ridiculous. It was an awesome ruse, y'all. I was another “proud feminist” battling closeted daddy issues and body insecurities while ridiculing other women. It prevented me from getting close to people, from truly hearing praise, and from feeling worthy of friendship and love. Not the best way to travel through adolescence.
Managing a body-focused repetitive behavior — be it skin-picking, nail-biting, or hair-pulling — is never really about correcting a physical ailment. It’s deeper than skin deep.
Today, at 27, I’m doing much better. My skin looks good, and my perspective has matured dramatically. Still, it’s hard to say when or even if I really feel like I've "gotten over" skin-picking. I still catch myself picking and feeling the urge, but I know my triggers. I know now that I pick when I feel anxious. I pick to feel in control of something — anything — but I don’t hurt myself like I used to. I know my limits, and respect the excellent job that my body does at healing itself.
When I tell people I pick, they’re surprised. But my skin is so clear! What do I use on my face? Readers, I could tell you about hemp seed oil, about Alima Pure mineral makeup, about the Clarisonic, about distracting myself from touching my face, about learning that most consumer hygiene goods cause comedogenic nightmares. But the thing is that all of that has nothing to do with why I pick my skin. Managing a body-focused repetitive behavior — be it skin-picking, nail-biting, or hair-pulling — is never really about correcting a physical ailment. It’s deeper than skin deep.
Even though I feel confident about my face, other insecurities ebb and flow in my mind. Shift happens. Sometimes I fantasize about removing a benign mole, or I remember and briefly take to heart what different jerks I've dated have said about my body. Sometimes I hate-shop for jeans on the internet, even though shopping for jeans on the internet is a fool’s errand.
My body is me, but it isn't all there is to me. And anyone who judges me — including me — on those grounds alone is missing the fuck out.
So, what’s my real skin-care routine? Self-love. I recognize my radical value and repeat it like a mantra whenever I feel blue.
No matter who I am, it is my right to love myself and live as fully and freely as I can. My body is me, but it isn't all there is to me. It's the vehicle of my experience, and anyone who judges me — including me — on those grounds alone is missing the fuck out.
When I interviewed Nicole Santamorena — who suffers from skin-picking disorder — in her SUNY Purchase dorm room for the dermatillomania video below, she talked a mile a minute. Small truths every which way from someone who is and sounds exactly like she’s in her early 20s. “People are terrible at seeing potential,” she said. And it's true. We don't typically see the boundless soul expanse that radiates from everyone around us. We miss their humanity.
Women and femmes — because this self-esteem crisis affects you like it affects no one else — please know that you are worth loving. Please know that you are beautiful and life is precious. Please know that you truly can do anything that you put your mind to, including survive, and that your energy speaks so much louder than the open wound on your face that you've tried and failed to cover with concealer.
And more than anything else, please know that no matter how "good" or how "bad" you look right now, everything is going to be okay.