My face began breaking out with bad hormonal acne around my twentieth birthday. Being a perfectionist, even the occasional pimple bothered me—but a face full of unsightly bumps and spots? I could not accept that. Why did my face decide to freak out in college? How could my acne be worse at 20 than at 15? My acne felt like a curse—I thought I was supposed to be past that phase—so picking seemed like a quick solution to a persistent problem.
I didn’t know it then, but cystic or hormonal acne is more difficult to treat than the acne lesions that pop up on the faces of most teenagers. It’s also the kind that easily scars. I later realized that some of these scars from picking are permanent—a crushing realization for a 20-year-old with an already fragile self-esteem.
According to The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, permanent acne scarring affects an estimated 1 to 11 percent of the general population. I remember looking at my new scars with scrutiny; I mourned for the fresh-faced girl of only a year prior, before the onset of my cystic acne problem. The face reflected in the mirror seemed changed—not only by discoloration and pockmarks but by sadness and shame, too. Several red marks and a few deep scars left me feeling ruined, ugly, and woefully imperfect. In typical compare-and-despair fashion, I felt inferior to women with clear complexions and smooth skin. I imagined others noticing nothing more than my scars.
The truth though was that the criticism was almost entirely from within. Every morning, I layered on foundation and concealer, hoping to hide the redness. I brought my makeup bag everywhere, touching up in between classes. Covering up insecurities was another story. When my self-confidence waned, I avoided eye contact. Some days, I wanted to hole up in my room rather than face the world.
This all may sound overdramatic, but I know I am not alone. The emotional damage of acne and acne scarring is as real as the physical damage. According to The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, acne scars “may be linked to poor self-esteem, depression, anxiety, altered social interactions, body image alterations, embarrassment, anger, lowered academic performance, and unemployment.” Others who have struggled with this can attest that coping with the emotional effects of acne scarring can be as difficult as, if not more difficult than, bringing healing to the actual facial wounds.
And seeking to resolve the acne itself is not easy. During the past few years, I’ve tried everything from laser treatments to applied skin creams in hopes of healing my damaged skin. My face has improved, but, at the end of the day, it looks like these blemishes will likely be part of my skin for the rest of my life—a fact that still isn’t easy to cope with.
I hope to someday find myself humbled by what has often seemed like a fight for my own vanity. The scars and strife have lasted a few years now, and I’m still trying to arrive at a place of true self-acceptance. I wish I could say (with honesty) that I feel content with how my face looks; some days, I really do, while other days, I don’t. Even when someone kindly tells me, “I don’t see what you’re seeing” or “Your face looks fine to me,” I can’t accept her words.
I know that the real solution is to accept myself, first. And, in an unexpected way, acne actually helped me with that.
Acne made me realize that yes, the skin shaming needs to stop. Our culture on the whole needs to stop scrutinizing imperfections. The Photoshop phenomenon—no imperfection of body or skin can escape airbrushing if it should appear before a mass audience—is truly everywhere. It’s common knowledge that most magazines do this, but even fashion bloggers and everyday Instagrammers digitally “fix” their skin. In my most fearful moments, I wonder if I can’t be happy in my own skin, so to speak, because our Photoshop-addicted culture can’t accept this kind of imperfection—or any imperfection for that matter.
What if we traded the shame we feel in our own skin for self-acceptance; critiquing (whether consciously or not) for compassion?
Just like our value isn’t dependent on the size of our jeans, neither does it depend on the marks or lines on our faces. Our skin’s “imperfections”—whether adult acne, wrinkles, sunspots or scars—do not define us. Physical beauty says nothing of our character. Starting with ourselves, it’s time we value women for character, not just appearance.
I may be guilty of placing excessive emphasis and energy on my own physical appearance, but struggles can be blessings in disguise. Through all of this, I’m learning day by day to honor who I am on the inside, first.
Loving myself means tending to my emotional, physical, and spiritual health. In the four years since my acne and scarring struggle began, I’ve learned to cultivate self-worth apart from appearance. I take pride in my talents, abilities, work, and even the list of places I’ve traveled. When my perfectionist self wants to critique—not only my looks but also everything I say and do—I have to know that I am enough. I remember that friends and family accept me as I am. I try not to measure myself against others.
More practically, leaving home without makeup has helped me to let go of my once-strong shame. And instead of dismissing compliments, I accept them. When my vanity goes unchecked, and insecurities boil over, I remind myself that there’s much more to life than appearance. I’m not sure if I would have learned this deeper lesson without these acne problems.
Like anyone, I hope to be seen for what lies inside of me—my talents, compassion, intelligence, quirky humor, and caring heart—rather than what’s on the surface of my skin. I want others to recognize these qualities as the real me rather than what the physical reality of a few pitted scars, or even my “good” features, might suggest.
My battle with acne scars has taught me that, all in all, our physical features, whether good or bad, do not determine our self-worth. My encounter with skin-based shame led me to realize that self-worth has to first originate from within because that’s where we find our lasting beauty and truest selves. I hope that one day our culture can learn to focus less on superficial features and more on a person’s character—her interior features. But in the meantime, those of us who experience perceived “imperfections” on our faces might learn an early life lesson in a more visceral way than most—that beauty is only skin-deep, after all.