Warning: The following includes images of self-harm scars, which some readers may find distressing.
Earlier this year, big name brands including Urban Decay, MAC and L’Oreal were applauded for posting pictures of models with ‘real’ skin on social media. Pores, freckles, spots, wrinkles and facial hair leapt proudly from the images, much to the delight of thousands of Instagram users worldwide, who were both happy and reassured to see actual texture instead of Photoshopped 'perfection'. Looking at and talking about skin in this way is a step in the right direction, of course, but it is also just the tip of the iceberg.
From vitiligo and stretch marks to scars and pigmentation, not enough light is shed on the variety of different skin types, textures and conditions that we have as individuals. But as part of our Skin Deep series, we’re aiming to do just that. Ahead, ten brilliant women open up about the unique relationships they have with their skin, because if this project has taught us anything at Refinery29, it’s that the affinity we have with our body’s largest organ is so much more than just skin deep.
I don’t like my boobs in general - they have nothing of what 'nice boobs' are 'meant to look like' so I think I have zoned them out, which I find quite sad. I don’t even remember when they went from smooth to covered with stretch marks and small red veins, it is not like I have had any babies yet! I think it is because my weight has been up and down all my life, so my boobs have probably been on that journey with me. They are never something I look forward to revealing in an intimate situation, I have never really liked them, only when they are covered in a bra and well hidden behind clothes. They are also saggy. They have often prevented me of letting go in a sexual context to be honest. At the moment, for the first time in my life, I don’t mind them. My partner likes them and makes me feel like they are cute, and that the wobbliness is nice. I feel more comfortable with them now. They are weird and not picture perfect, but they feel soft and my partner makes me feel like they are the best. I learned from being on this photoshoot that I like them for what they are now. I would have never in a million years taken them out like that six months ago. If more women showed all of these 'skin imperfections' we would see that we all have them. I went away thinking that I should sit down more and talk about these things, because even small words helped.
I have Epidermolysis Bullosa, which means I get blisters all over my body and skin discolouration as a result. It's really patchy and quite severe. The blisters can get really painful. They vary in size but sometimes I get really big ones. Because of the pain I have to lance them with a needle every morning just to get them to go down. I put on an antiseptic cream and then a dressing. I was born with it and straight away I had blisters all over my skin. I was transferred to Great Ormond Street hospital and stayed there for a month for them to find out what it actually was. Other people's reactions are the biggest problem. If I lived in this world by myself I wouldn't know I was different. Throughout childhood I was constantly bullied and that was hard, and other people's perceptions of me break me down. In terms of intimacy and relationships, I tend to put a wall up. I'm terrified of someone seeing what I look like underneath [my clothes] and I push people away a lot. I try and cover it up as much as possible, but the way the pictures were taken and directed has helped me to see my skin through a different lens. I never thought I’d see my skin highlighted in an artistic way rather than in a negative light.
There's a really specific ideal in the press about what skin should look like. I'm a millennial, so I've lived through the days of Girls Aloud being bright orange and super-tanned and that was the norm. I've tried to emulate that with my own skin, but I'm extremely pale and have lots of freckles. I've probably spent thousands of pounds on fake tan over the years. I’m thirty and in recent years I got to a point where I realised it wasn't working. If I wasn’t trying to change my skin colour, I was trying to cover up my freckles. I used to go to makeup counters and their ambition was to cover up my freckles, so I was always given heavy, matte foundations. I had this ghost-like face that didn't match my skin tone or the rest of my freckly body. I'm happier with my freckles now and I don't tend to notice them until people point them out - at that point I do get self conscious. I remember scrolling through ASOS recently and noticed lots of models with freckles and I think it's amazing. I just hope it continues and doesn't become a fashionable fetish. Mainstream beauty looks like it is starting to become more plural. Historically, tanned European white skin has been treated as the standard, thus excluding women of colour. There is still long way to go, it can't be just a fad.
I sometimes also get a red heat rash which can come about with a change of temperature or even when someone touches me. I'm a big fan of massages and I've had people comment on it, worrying I've got some kind of infectious disease or something! I also have a little Keratosis Pilaris on my arms, legs and butt. For a long time I didn't understand what it was – I used to exfoliate which wouldn't help and it just used to make my arms red raw. But at the same time, pretty much everyone has got it. It’s perfectly normal even though we're trying to hide it.
Because I work in costume and textiles, I’m constantly creating and sewing, which means I’m confronted with my scars every day. Because I’m freelance, I need to network, and it’s the first thing people see when they shake my hand. I had a date last weekend and the guy said he noticed my scars first. I think my scars catch people out because I come across as such a happy go lucky person to other people. Everyone makes a judgement. For people, these scars are an insight into my mental health. I’m more aware of other people’s reactions. I’ve never liked wearing bracelets or rings because it drew more attention to my scars but people were staring so much, so I thought, let me give them something else to look at while they’re there! My scars are a part of me and my identity - the struggle I went through then has made me who I am now. I don’t cut anymore. My mum passed away recently and I thought about cutting again, but she hated it, so I refrained. Now I sew and make things to take my mind off self-harming.
I've had vitiligo all my life. It's an auto-immune disease, but my mum thinks it could be something to do with me having measles as a child. She has a couple of theories, but it was never really identified as a child and no-one was really interested. I had it all over my face but now my face is completely white, as are some of the hairs. It's pretty symmetrical elsewhere, though. I even have it in the hair on my head. If I'm on a beach, I'll go brown in all the places I still have pigment but in the whiter places I burn - I mean, really burn. My mum never made my vitiligo an issue - she was brilliant and I didn't hide it until I was a teenager and an adult. People used to say, "Why don't you cover it up?" But why would I want to? It's everywhere and I'd have to slap foundation on my hands and feet. I don't notice I've got it until somebody looks. I'm a teacher, so the kids will ask me about it. I've had some catty comments like, "Miss, your fake tan isn't very good," but I tell them it's just a skin condition. The bit that bothers me the most is my hair - it doesn't take dye very well so you end up spending a lot of money on hair dye, but I'm part of a vitiligo group on Facebook and it's nice because people talk about it. I've never been bothered about it, apart from my face because it was quite panda-like. I try not to get tanned because the only bit of brown I have left is a strip on my nose. Recently I've developed diabetes and that is connected to the vitiligo. You can have Hashimotos and gut problems - other auto-immune diseases tend to group together with this and people are just starting to find links. I'm actually a bit disappointed that some of my vitiligo has disappeared, though. Apparently, by the age of 50 you're supposed to have lost 50% of your pigment, so I've done quite well.
I've never really thought about my stretch marks that much. I noticed them first on my mum when I was about seven years old, and I was like, "What are those?" She told me that stretch marks were normal and that people get them when they're growing up. I really liked my stretch marks when I was younger because they were like tiger stripes and every time I looked at them I thought they looked really cool. I didn't realise they were such a big deal for people until I got older. I realised that people in [magazines and online] didn't really have them and it took me a lot of time to understand that they were airbrushed and that they weren't real. Once I understood where stretch marks came from and what they were, I stopped caring about them. I did go through a phase of thinking that they might be getting a bit too stretched out so I thought about not gaining or losing too much weight to keeping things stable, but I know that stretch marks are normal and it's nothing I feel like I have to treat. What I don't want is for this whole era of body positivity to disappear and make way for another big movement. I want it to be a positive change forever, not just a fashion cycle.
I'm super-pale but I was even paler when I was younger and I used to get teased a lot because of it - they called me 'ghost girl' and told me my skin was see-through because you could literally see all of my veins. I never really got teased about my freckles, though. I've also got quite a big birthmark on my leg. I think it's weird that you can buy things to make it look like you have freckles. Gigi Hadid, one of the most beautiful models in the world, has all of her moles Photoshopped out. Why are freckles pretty and things like psoriasis isn't pretty? My housemate has thought about buying lightening creams online to get rid of her freckles, but my parents would always compliment me on mine. I think it's fun - sometimes I'll get a new freckle and I like spotting them. As I get older and I go on more holidays I notice I'll get a new patch, but I like that.
I was about five when my birthmark appeared, but they still call it a birthmark. I remember when it was first noticed, my mum and dad looked at me and wondered what was happening. They took me to loads of doctors and no-one really knew until one doctor confirmed it was just a birthmark. Sometimes people are born with them but they can appear a few years later. I didn't get many comments growing up, but I was so shy! I thought that if I made myself invisible, no-one would notice me. At primary school, kids would ask me if I'd been punched in the eye. It's only the last year that I've started talking about it; my best friends didn't know I felt that way. When I was seventeen, I discovered camouflage makeup thanks to the British Red Cross - they have a division that deals with scars and camouflage. I looked into laser treatment but they wouldn't do it because it was around my eye. I got my confidence from jars of makeup, but I realised that I was hiding and it's not a nice feeling. It stopped me in other parts of my life. Everyone has a version of my birthmark – it's a metaphor for something someone else might be hiding. This is the first time I've not carried my camouflage makeup in my bag. The emotional support has been great.
I have scarring on my arms and thighs. It's weird because I forget they are there until I notice people looking at me. It's been five or six years since [I started to self harm] but I've never hidden the scarring which is quite shocking for some people because we're not used to people having scars on display. There's a big societal difference between having scars and having scars you've done to yourself, but if I was to hide, I'd be living in jeans and sweatshirts all the time and I overheat! It doesn't make me uncomfortable necessarily. There are times when I'll cover up, during job interviews or if I'm around lots of small children. I don't know why, but I think it's because my family always told me to. When I was a bridesmaid at my aunty's wedding, I had to wear a long sleeve. They told me I had to cover up, but I hadn't even thought it would be an issue because for me it isn't, it's everyone else's problem. It's odd because it's my skin.
The only time I ever feel self-conscious about it is when I'm at the beach in my bikini and you can see everything. People look, but don't tend to say anything. Kids will ask and I tend to say, "Oh, I got into a fight with a tiger, you should see him!"
I'd finished my GCSEs and went to college and all of my friends went to sixth form, so I was really lonely and isolated and I'd been struggling with anxiety for years before then, but when I had no friends and no outlook, everything started spiralling and it was the only thing I could do to let everything out and to feel something again because I felt very numb. It just becomes an addiction and it was very hard to stop. My mum took me to the doctor who told me I just needed some friends and some summer plans, so I was like, "Great." That wasn't a success. I ended up in an inpatient unit before the referral to CAMS (Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicidality) came. I don't know how we made it through that year – it affected the whole family.
I've got a love-hate relationship with my freckles. When I was growing up it was more of a hate relationship, actually. I was picked on and boys would call me freckle face - even my sister would say things. I've never tried to cover them up with things like foundation because I feel weird when I do - my face looks blank, it looks odd. I don't know if, whether I could choose, I would choose to have them, but if someone came up to me and said, "Oh you can have a magical treatment to get rid of them," I don't think I would do it. I find it weird when people say that freckles are amazing and that they really want them. It's like, no, you don't. You want the cute ones across your nose - not freckles all over your body. I find the whole 'freckles are on trend' thing very odd. I saw someone wearing transfer freckles on the bus once and I found it a little bit... offensive? It shocked me and I didn't know how to feel about it. In magazines, freckles are on trend. Topshop brought out their freckle pencil. Designers had shows where they gave the models freckles. Why couldn't they just use models with real freckles? Growing up, you never really saw people with freckles as role models, other than Lindsay Lohan! I remember Meghan Markle saying that she always had her freckles covered up, so I think there's more positivity around them now. I'm very aware that I have to keep an eye on them and that there are a lot to keep an eye on. I've told my boyfriend to help me but I keep an eye on my moles more than anything.
If you or someone you know is considering self-harm, please get help. Call Mind on 0300 123 3393 or text 86463.*
Some names have been changed