Is My Obsession With Perfect Skin Ruining My Life?

Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
Like an existentialist Carrie Bradshaw by way of Carl Jung, I often get to thinking: How much of a person is personality, and how much is pathology? Where do I — my likes and dislikes, my hobbies, my habits — end, and my mental illness begins?
I've heard people talk about how their beauty routine helps their anxiety or depression. That sounds nice. Mine is more like a reflection of it, or perhaps a result, a semblance of order that makes sense, that goes from A to B to C and leads to a logical conclusion, because there's nothing more comforting to a neurotic person than a logical conclusion. But what if the conclusion never comes? What if your neurotic ass follows the handbook exactly as prescribed, an imagined step-by-step guide to attaining smooth, poreless complexion perfection, but can't seem to seal the deal?
Well, that's easy: It turns into a fixation. And it becomes all-consuming. And at some point you start to wonder, Am I really the passionate and knowledgable skin-care enthusiast I think of myself as, or has the pursuit of perfection paired with my clinically-diagnosed obsessive thought patterns turned me instead into a very sick, very vain individual with a very real hoarding problem and a taste for luxury? Ever think of that?
I do — clearly. I think of it a lot: as I'm taking off my makeup with micellar water on a cotton pad, as I'm washing my face with a $70 bottle of foam, as I'm massaging any number of serums and creams and essences into my skin, as I'm staring at my pores in the bathroom mirror so closely that the glass starts to fog up, as I'm spending so much time executing every step of my evening routine with such care that my boyfriend is long asleep before I get into bed, a full 25 minutes later. And I still wake up with dry skin around my nose and blackheads on my chin, which is frankly insulting.
There's a legitimate link between complications of the mind and the skin — a few of them, actually. There's the recent study that followed 134,427 acne sufferers over the course of 15 years and found that they were significantly more likely to develop major depression than the clear-skinned control group. There's an emerging field of medicine known as psychodermatology, fostering the idea that one's skin and one's psyche are more inextricably linked than we even thought. There's the widely-accepted idea of the psychophysiological, skin problems that are exacerbated by stress and other emotional factors.
In my life, I've used palmfuls of abrasive apricot scrub, like gritty swaths of sandpaper, trying to scrape away the ugly. I've wielded alpha-hydroxy acids like weapons. I've picked, peeled, scratched, and popped, until I bled or until someone knocked on the door, whichever came first. So maybe for me a healthy relationship with my skin is not the ability to accept it for what it is, redness, pores, breakouts, and all, but rather to simply treat it kindly, gently, and yes, very thoroughly, for however long that takes. Maybe there is no defined start or stop to what differentiates me and my exacting routines from my faulty brain circuitry; maybe it all bleeds together. I am them. We are me. And we love a good vitamin C serum.
Welcome to MyIdentity. The road to owning your identity is rarely easy. In this yearlong program, we will celebrate that journey and explore how the choices we make on the outside reflect what we’re feeling on the inside — and the important role fashion and beauty play in helping people find and express who they are.

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