Acne Files

Wait, Where Did All The Skin Positivity Go?

Photographed by Audrey Melton.
Welcome to Acne Files, a month-long series where we get real about whiteheads, blackheads, cysts, and every bump or blemish in between. From skin-soothing products R29 editors swear by to exclusive deals on the most breakout-friendly beauty brands, we’re kissing the concept of “bad skin” goodbye and exploring why acne goes so much further than skin deep.
Spend enough time on social media, and reality all but disappears. Narratives are warped to fuel clicks, images are shared with altered appearances, and filters mask creators' faces and voices. Then there are the trends, -cores, and eras; a staggering array of currently popular aesthetics to try on, try out, and discard. “Clean girl,” “glazed doughnut,” and “Jello skin” — not an oddly-timed game of Mad Libs but a selection of the most popular skin-care trends gracing our feeds this year and last. Each is subtly underpinned by a shared aspiration: evenly toned, blemish-free, richly dewy skin. 
Four years ago, the beauty landscape online looked radically different. Creators were gaining fame by displaying skin that looked like the skin you see in the mirror, or the skin you see when you look at your friends and colleagues; skin that doesn’t feel as if it’s been airbrushed or fine-tuned with the help of exclusive and expensive dermatology. Communities were built around celebrating skin with acne, rosacea, eczema, and hyperpigmentation. People found space to discuss and share their experiences with their skin, often forming new and meaningful online relationships. Brands got involved, platforming models with acne on advertising billboards and on social media. This community — the skin positivity community — seemed on the brink of dismantling exclusionary and outdated beauty standards. 
Yet in 2023, trends championing “clear skin” still abound. Many brands have significantly dialed back their usage of models with blemished skin. Have we abandoned skin positivity, casting it off with other relegated trends, or is the movement trucking along in the background, away from the spotlight of momentary fame?

Has skin positivity lost its way?

For Maia Gray, an acne-positive influencer on Instagram, discovering the world of skin positivity in 2020 helped her feel less alone. “Throughout school, I was severely bullied and felt very insecure in my skin. It felt as if I was the only one in the world with painful, cystic acne. When I left school, the insecurities carried on through my early 20s,” she says. Then, when I discovered a whole community of people sharing their stories online, I knew I wanted to make a positive difference, too.” Over 130,000 followers later, Gray has firmly established herself as a powerful influence in the skin positivity space. 
“The skin positivity movement is not about feeling positive all the time. It’s about making small steps to embrace the skin you’re in — working towards loving the person looking back at you in the mirror,” Gray tells Refinery29. “A condition like acne can make a person feel so alone, like they’re the only one in the world who has it. The skin positivity movement brings people together by raising awareness and celebrating all skin conditions and types, from acne to scars, stretch marks, and textured skin.”
When Gray first encountered the skin-positive sphere three years ago, the beauty industry was reacting accordingly, stepping up to celebrate filter-free, un-Photoshopped, “normal” skin. Brands such as The Inkey List and Skin Proud shared images of models with acne to advertise their products. 
“It’s so refreshing to see beauty brands hiring models with ‘imperfect skin’ and see a huge shift in the media we consume,” Deanna (@deannaskin), an acne-positive skin influencer, says. “Over time, those changes will continue and those character tropes we grew up watching — the nerd with acne, the villain who has scars, or the witch with wrinkles — will change too.”
While many people, like Deanna, still strongly believe in the movement, the initial surge of change, with brands eager to take part, seems to have abated. Arguably the buzziest skin-care brand at the moment, Hailey Bieber’s Rhode has shared only one image and one video on its Instagram grid depicting someone with a pimple since the account began posting in June 2022. A year later, the squares speak for themselves: row after row of women with “perfect” skin. 
Similarly, Skkn, Kim Kardashian’s skin-care brand, hasn’t posted a single image of someone with active acne to its Instagram grid since its conception last year. Two of the biggest voices in popular culture, and now skin care, and yet radio silence on dismantling the damaging archetype of perfect skin. This simply isn’t representative of the wider population. “Skin is a living organ — it’s rare for it to be completely blemish-free at all times,” says Dr. Angela Tewari, consultant dermatologist at Get Harley. Unyielding feeds of people with flawless skin is just not reality. 
“Skin positivity has helped but it’s gotten to the stage where it’s been so commercialized,” says Alicia Lartey, a beauty influencer and aesthetician. “I don’t think it means anything anymore. Every brand can attach themselves to it and sell something, and I don’t think that’s what it started out as. Plus, when you see a lot of the imagery touting ‘skin positivity,’ it’s one person with one spot.” This retraction, a notable shift from the large-scale skin-positive campaigns, begs a bigger question: Are we choosing to go back to the beauty standards we tried, momentarily, to dismantle — and, if we are, at what cost?

The price of forgetting

This hyper-attention to our skin, fed by the pressure of achieving a clear, smooth complexion, can create observable stress on our emotions and mental health. Spurred on by a lack of representation, it can, as Gray put it, make you feel as if you’re the only person in the world dealing with acne or other skin conditions. “I increasingly see patients who seek treatment for small ‘flaws’ in their skin in the quest for perfect skin,” says Dr. Mia Jing Gao, consultant dermatologist at the Cadogan Clinic. “In an image-focused culture, it is difficult not to feel that pressure, especially if your job is client-facing.” 
Skin positivity has always been about more than ticking a representation box. It’s about actively choosing to see, include, and champion the people who consume your content or buy your products. It’s about safeguarding the mental health of people who have breakouts, flare-ups, or a history of chronic skin conditions. Less of a buzzword and more of a social movement, skin positivity is the dismantling of inherent beauty standards that seek to exclude. 
“Representing a wide array of skin types and conditions in marketing and media is crucial for several reasons,” says Dr. Jinah Yoo, a dermatologist and founder of Maylin x Jinah Yoo Dermatology. “Firstly, it promotes inclusivity and breaks down beauty standards that have traditionally favored a narrow range of skin appearances. It helps individuals with different skin types feel represented and valued, promoting self-acceptance and boosting confidence. Additionally, diverse representation educates and raises awareness about various skin conditions, reducing stigmatization and fostering empathy and understanding among the general population.”
This fostered empathy and the kindness exhibited amongst people on and offline are core tenets of the skin positivity community, attracting like-minded people looking for connection. For many, it’s what drew them in. “Skin positivity can seem airy-fairy, but for me it means not hating myself, not missing out on my life, not feeling disgusting or unclean or allowing people to judge me because I feel more positive about my skin,” says Lartey.
May (@maythami), a beauty content creator with a combined 641,000 followers on Instagram and TikTok, has spoken openly about becoming more confident with her skin. She says that the ripple effect of people sharing their stories in the skin positivity community makes others more comfortable seeing and having ‘imperfect’ skin — but she notes that there’s a flip side, too. “I do think the movement has helped to change beauty standards, but it can trigger hate as well. Because people are so used to needing to look a certain way in society, they don’t like when you proudly show off the opposite. There will always be people who make a comment about it, but the people who reply to that with positivity totally outnumber the negatives.”

What is skin neutrality?

If skin positivity is waning (a quick glance over the country’s largest lifestyle magazine covers, all platforming people with “perfect skin,” would indicate that it might be), is there an attainable goal which we can strive towards as a society — and is that goal skin neutrality
“Skin neutrality is a concept that focuses on detaching one's self-worth and identity from the appearance or condition of your skin,” explains Dr. Yoo. “It involves adopting a neutral stance toward one's skin and recognizing that it does not define a person's value or worth. Skin neutrality encourages individuals to prioritize their overall well-being and not let their skin's appearance affect their self-esteem or mental health.”
In contrast to skin positivity, skin neutrality invites us to be less critical of our skin, accepting it each day without affixing any positive or negative emotions. For Gray, it has the same positive outcome on people’s perceptions. “Skin neutrality and skin positivity hold common ground in raising awareness [of people with skin conditions],” she says. “That’s what’s incredibly important — paving the way for change.”
The choice of approach and language is key, each allowing people to exist as they are, not pursuing something they need to be or look like. If skin positivity or neutrality is waning on billboards or magazine covers, take heart in knowing it’s as nurtured and fueled as ever among creators and their followers online.
“The skin positivity movement has helped millions of people around the world understand that acne is a skin condition that doesn’t just affect teenagers, isn’t linked to poor hygiene, and can’t be ‘cured’ simply by drinking water,” says Gray. “Since I created my acne positivity page in 2020, I’ve noticed a positive change. Through my personal hard work and dedication, I have been able to spread my own awareness within the media, providing a safe space for others who feel alone with their skin.”

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