‘Do you have chickenpox?’ Four words, three stunned seconds, two fast heartbeats and one realisation. I realised in the school playground that there was something on my face that may not be instantly registered as normal or expected. I was eleven years old and primary school children are never the most tactful, yet the memory of those words spoken so flippantly for me mark a turning point from childhood bliss to a battle against the three major elements of the teenage years: hormones, anxiety and what turned out to be the all-consuming matriarch of them all, acne.
Every acne journey is different. Some are short and sweet, a homage to the annoyance of pimples that most endure at one stage or another. Others rapidly intensify and pimples on skin seemingly overnight become a worst enemy to be fought against daily. I had my first dermatologist appointment aged fourteen. After waiting for three hours, a woman brushed an uninterested hand over the sorest areas on my cheeks and jaw before dismissing me five minutes later. A prescription of the contraceptive pill followed because ‘it does the trick for most people’. I can confirm it did not do the trick for me – two weeks later my acne was angrier than it had ever been and my self-confidence had been left behind in the consulting room. A game of trial and error was soon in play and by sixteen the bathroom cabinet was a graveyard of more failed tricks of the trade: pharmacy creams in 1950s packaging, cleansers that burned, serums containing silver extract and toners that cost the earth, all laid to rest while my skin remained so far from being at peace. It is draining to try to fix something that appears to be unfixable.
Yes, there are worse things to worry about. There always are. But acne causes anxiety and upset to people at an age when they are often most vulnerable and this is worth talking about. It is surely easier to learn to love imperfections when they are not instantly labelled as just that – something that is not perfect, not ideal. You can easily love a dog-eared novel as it is physical proof of something treasured. A stain on a well-loved jumper is appreciated as you remember the laughs that followed the stain-inducing incident. Why is it so difficult to see acne as something natural instead of just a flaw? Perhaps it starts with banishing words such as ‘impurity’ and in being kinder to our skin as it is the only one we have.
I eventually found respite in the form of a vitamin supplement which I have taken religiously for the last three years. As my acne came under control, my confidence blossomed and opportunities for love, work and adventure were reborn. Today I have a healthy relationship with my skin: I respect it. I respect it for changing and telling me my period is due or I need to drink more water. I enjoy painting it in the morning and undressing it at night. I have accepted the red marks that may never fully fade and when breakouts come, that is now finally all it is: just a breakout, just a spot. I work hard to keep the promise that I made to myself in that I would never let the condition of my skin affect the condition of my happiness again.
A wrinkle is a reminder that we have lived and laughed – an acne scar should remind us that we have lived and fought hard to be confident while walking past advertisements where pores are a myth and spots are for those who are ‘unclean’. This morning I told my oldest friend I was writing about the subject that she has seen first-hand affect my confidence over the years. We agreed very happily that times are indeed changing for the better. Today my Instagram feed is blessed with skin positivity and promotions of real skin that would have been a lifeline to see on those days when walking through school corridors felt so very exposing, like a parade of the thing on the outside that overshadowed all I was proud of on the inside. ‘It really is cool to be kind now’ she said as I dropped a sugar cube in my coffee, without worrying if it would result in a spot the next day.
I feel both heavy and light as I write this piece. I am heavy with the thought of the hours upon hours I spent as a teenager covering my skin, avoiding eye contact, cancelling plans and crying to a mirror reflection of the angry redness living on my face, shoulders and back. At the time, these acts were both inescapable and inevitable. It has indeed been a journey since those four words were uttered to me in the school playground. But lightness now comes from the peace of mind in knowing that real skin is promoted now more than ever; from accepting that flare ups will regularly happen and that it’s okay. It comes from realising that no one has perfect skin all of the time and actually believing it.