I spent almost all of my teen years dealing with severe, all-over acne; the super pissed-off, red kind that only seemed to act as a visual representation of how I felt about my skin on the inside. And while well-intended people around me assured me that my acne "wasn't that bad" or that it "wasn't a big deal," the truth is that, well, it was. And the more people made me feel like my acne was just a surface-level problem that was just skin deep, the more I retreated into my growing sense of self-consciousness and anxiety. I was at an age where I was entering high school, beginning to realise boys were maybe not so gross after all, and starting to think about college and what career I'd want to pursue; but so much of what I can remember from being a teenager is how much I obsessed over my acne. I spent countless hours at dermatologist visits, not to mention plenty of cash on skincare, and nothing ever seemed to work. It was like someone was playing a cruel joke on me.
When I was younger, I wanted to be pretty so bad. I wanted the charm and smile of Disney Channel darlings, and the hotness of Hollister models wearing three camisoles at once and a frayed denim mini, cavorting on the beach with shirtless surfer "brahs". While I probably wouldn't have gotten around to such debauchery anyway, I can't help but feel like I let my acne really stand in the way of living my best life; I didn't date until college because I hated the way I looked and assumed no guy would find me remotely attractive. I didn't bother trying out for cheerleading — even though it looked fun — because I didn't think I was pretty enough. (I was also kinda scared of shattering every bone in my body.) "Many studies have shown that acne takes a real toll on self-esteem, can cause depression and anxiety, and an overall withdrawal from life," board-certified psychiatrist and dermatologist (and author of The Mind-Beauty Connection) Dr. Amy Wechsler, M.D. tells me. "I have patients who come in and they might not make eye contact with me. Everything about their body language kind of says, 'I'm not feeling good [about myself]."
That said, I was lucky to have a small yet amazing group of friends (some of whom I still talk to today) who always made me feel like they were seeing me, not my skin. While comparatively few and far between, I'm so grateful for all the memories spent getting Frappuccinos and McDonald's fries, chatting about all our big hopes and aspirations. "As I clear patients' skin, they're standing up straighter, making eye contact, laughing, trying new things like going for a new job interview or going back to school, going on a date, getting engaged in a social or sports activity," Dr. Wechsler adds.
"I have patients who come in and they might not make eye contact with me. Everything about their body language kind of says, 'I'm not feeling good [about myself]."
Dr. Amy wechsler, m.d.
Before realising my dream of pursuing beauty journalism, I actually was passionate about fashion photography — editorials in the pages of magazines absolutely captivated me. High school me was never without my tiny Sony point-and-shoot digital camera, since I was always taking photos of my friends at school or at the mall. While I probably have hundreds, if not thousands, of images, I'm only in a fraction of them. Because of my acne, I avoided cameras at all costs since the last thing I wanted was to immortalise how bad my skin was. It's truthfully, one of my few regrets that I don't have more photos of myself from this period of my life.
As a teenager, I was constantly watching YouTube beauty tutorials from Michelle Phan and juicystar07, but sometimes when I'd attempt to recreate a look, it honestly made me want to cry. I loved beauty, but it didn't feel like the beauty industry loved me back. Whereas friends and popular girls were having fun with (too much) black eyeliner, bronzer, and practically reflective glossy lips, I felt like I was excluded from the makeup conversation because of my far-from-flawless skin. All I could see when I wore so much as a wash of eyeshadow was bumpy, uneven skin that more closely resembled a mountain range, not the poreless complexions of a model.
"I loved beauty, but it didn't feel like the beauty industry loved me back."
At 28, my skin has calmed down a lot since my teen years, but I still more or less have at least a few active breakouts or uneven texture going on all the time. I used to think that the rare pimple-free occurrence was a "good skin day," but I'm trying to actively unlearn the idea of "good skin" altogether. It's a work in progress, and I still get sad sometimes. However, I'm grateful that through coping tools like therapy and journaling — plus much-needed shifts in the way beauty brands talk about acne — that I've learned to show my skin the kindness I wish I had done when I was younger. Even if my skin doesn't look like the "after" photo of a Proactiv ad, I know that the state of my mental health is very much in the clear.