The “Skin Neutrality” Movement Is Growing — But I Can’t Get On Board

Photographed by Sarah Harry-Isaacs.
On Instagram alone, the "skin positivity" hashtag has amassed an enormous 36,000 posts and counting, as people with skin conditions like acne, rosacea, eczema, and psoriasis ditch the filters and share raw, unadulterated pictures of their skin. From pigmented and pitted scars to cystic breakouts and whiteheads, skin positivity embraces "real" skin in all its glory.
Skin positivity takes inspiration from body positivity, the global movement that led to a diverse range of body types finally being celebrated. More recently, body positivity has found a less passionate offshoot in "body neutrality." For those who find it difficult to love their bodies wholeheartedly, this new notion sees individuals simply accept their bodies — and skin is following suit.
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When it comes to adult acne, skin neutrality has the potential to be a great concept: After all, it's not easy to be genuinely positive about something that is painful, leaves unwanted scars, and often dents your self-esteem. But as someone who is prone to unpredictable bouts of hormonal acne and has tried various treatments, medications, and skin-care products to keep it under control, I find it hard to be neutral about my skin.

I started getting spots at 11; when I reached 25, acne hit me with a vengeance.

I started getting spots at 11 and they've stuck around ever since. When I reached 25, acne hit me with a vengeance and resulted in dark spots and scarring. As a beauty editor, I found it embarrassing, even shameful. I'm supposed to know how to achieve flawless skin (I've interviewed and observed hundreds of top makeup artists) but mine is often anything but. Acne makes me feel both unprofessional and juvenile. Every time I manage to get my skin under control, I fear that another smattering of whiteheads will appear out of nowhere. When they do, it's exasperating, and I feel humiliated — the thought of having to go through that time and time again takes its toll on my mental health.
I acknowledge that movements like skin neutrality can be incredibly helpful in making people feel less self-conscious about their skin, but it is also okay to not be okay about your skin, whatever condition you're dealing with. These concepts shouldn't make us feel guilty for crying over "bad" skin days, nor should they make us feel like we are sabotaging ourselves for cancelling plans as a result of a breakout, or even as though we should be ashamed in an era where self-love reigns supreme. Tackling every single layer of insecurity is no mean feat, and we don't need that kind of pressure.
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The reluctance I feel to accept my 'bad' skin is something beauty blogger Lex Gillies, who struggles with severe rosacea, knows all too well. "I see skin neutrality as a noble and admirable concept, but I'm not sure if I will ever reach that point myself," she told Refinery29. "Rosacea is a chronic skin condition, and although I have accepted the fact that it is a lifelong condition, it is still a difficult thing to make peace with on a psychological level."
Gillies uses her blog and social media to educate, support, and connect the rosacea community, but says the main issue is the negativity and ignorance that comes from outside of the community. "I can preach positivity and encourage fellow sufferers to be kind to themselves and love the skin they're in, but if they face discrimination, judgement, and ridicule from others on a daily basis, then neutrality becomes very hard," she says. "My skin has dramatically impacted my confidence, career and relationships for most of my adult life."
Consultant dermatologist Dr. Anjali Mahto has battled acne from a young age. While she believes that some level of skin neutrality can be possible with the right help, such as therapy, she recently took to Instagram to open up about how it has impacted her life for over 25 years. "I have lived struggling with my skin, wasting disproportionate hours worrying and concealing, attempting to change my lifestyle and skin care but getting nowhere," she wrote. "I have had good periods with my skin, usually when I am medicated for it. I feel better about not just myself, but my general outlook to everything when my skin improves and the angry cysts start to dissipate. I am less anxious or self-conscious and more confident. I need to spend less time and energy on my skin and can utilize those resources elsewhere as my skin clears up. I stop seeing my reflection in the mirror and seeing a traumatized 12-year-old from when it all started stare back. I am able to see beyond the marks and scars and simply just see me."
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Dr. Mahto went on to share how "bad" skin days can also significantly affect her mental health. Writing to her followers, she continued: "When my skin is playing up, I feel unhappy, ashamed, and embarrassed. I don't want people looking at me and I suspect every single person with a skin condition which is up and down (be that acne, eczema, psoriasis, or rosacea) will relate to this. For those of you lucky enough to not have ever had a skin problem, believe me when I say that the effects of how a skin condition make you feel are so much more than the physical."
Dermatologists' visits and private therapy sessions can be expensive, but it does pay to talk to an expert about your skin problems, and the psychological havoc they can wreak. "If you are having issues, I urge you to seek professional help," Dr. Mahto says. "I am saying this not only as a dermatologist, but as a fellow acne sufferer."
Gillies sums up the whole idea of skin neutrality perfectly. "Until our wider society recognizes, understands, and embraces skin conditions and visible differences, we still have a long way to go before we reach skin neutrality," she says. "I see the emerging skin positivity movement as the strong foundation we are laying. I hope that in the future we can reach true skin neutrality."
This story was originally published on Refinery29 UK.
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