Up until the age of 21, I had pretty clear skin. I complained about a few blemishes here and there, but that’s only because of my perfectionist nature and picking every single part of myself apart. I had a normal skin type, it was smooth, I could put anything on it and it would be okay, it wasn’t sensitive. I had what society would call ‘good’ skin.
Shortly after my 21st birthday and starting the weight restoration process in my eating disorder recovery journey, I developed adult cystic acne with incredibly oily skin and body acne. I had never experienced cystic acne, and don’t get me wrong, I’m aware that there are many other individuals with skin conditions much more severe than my own, but this was new territory for me. I was incredibly self-conscious of my body as it was, being in a bigger body and having to deal with all these physical changes, that when my face started to break out, it just intensified all this anxiety, shame and embarrassment I had about simply existing. On top of that, it was painful – the cysts were deep, painful nodules – and I didn’t know how to deal with this. My confidence was at an all-time low. (I don’t have photos of when I first developed acne, so all my photos show it less severe – just goes to show though how much more comfortable I am about photography and my skin!)
I took myself to the doctors because I didn’t know how I would cope with being at the beginning of my eating disorder recovery journey and having to deal with adult cystic acne both at the same time. I was put on antibiotics and given a topical treatment. It cleared my skin up, which helped immensely in the early stages of weight restoration and recovery, because it allowed me to be less self-conscious of my face and able to focus on other things (although it left my skin incredibly dry and flaky, meaning make-up application wasn’t great, something I found hard because a) I still wanted to cover my face up, and b) I enjoy playing with make-up).
After a few months, my body acne had cleared up, but the skin on my face relapsed and it was worse than ever. The topical treatment wasn’t helping and I had been on antibiotics for 5 months, which really didn’t sit well with me. I was doing a lot better with my eating, but it was still very temperamental – I was stuck in quasi-recovery – so off I went back to the doctors. Over the following 2 or 3 months, I tried various other topical treatments, including going back on the contraceptive pill in the hopes of it helping, but nothing helped. Eventually, I went back to uni, by which point I was in one place for long enough to get a dermatology referral; I waited 3 long months and finally got seen by a consultant. I explained the effects this was having on my mental health, the lack of self-esteem and crucially the pain I was getting from having these deep nodules on my cheeks. (Note: I also have impulsive behaviour to pick at anything that is ‘wrong’ with my face, I can’t help it, so it would leave my skin bleeding and with hyperpigmentation afterwards too). She suggested I tried a different contraceptive pill, one which was only prescribed to patients with acne which is resistant to other treatment, as well as another topical treatment.
The thing with acne treatment is that you need to wait 3 months to see if there is any improvement, you can’t push for changes any earlier as doctors will simply tell you to carry on until those 3 months have gone by. The 3 months passed, I still had breakouts and my skin was now excruciatingly sensitive – I had to stop using blemish treatments, make-up wipes, micellar water, sensitive skin cleansers, exfoliators, face mask, some makeup products. It was (and still is) so sensitive that even Sudocrem burns sometimes. My eyelids and skin around them get flaky and painful, to the point that even water hurts sometimes. I’d put on a face mask for sensitive skin, because #selfcareisthebestcare and have to wash it off after a few seconds because it would burn. Despite using SPF 50 on my skin daily, my skin blistered in the sun, leaving my nose bleeding to the touch. So as you can see, it’s more than ‘just having acne’.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve cried over my skin, but at so many points over the summer I would be in pain – and the worst part was that there was absolutely nothing I could do to stop it. I was fed up of having painful blemishes and ridiculously sensitive skin, but my self-esteem isn’t affected as much anymore (PSA: I’m only human, so yes, I do still have days where this is harder). Why does my skin no longer affect my self-esteem? I have the body positive community to thank for helping me realise that there is no such thing as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ skin. Why do we put moral value on whether our skin has blemishes, scars, hyperpigmentation, texture, etc? It’s just skin!.
All those photos of the perfectly smooth, flawless skin that we see online are almost certainly edited to look that way. Our skin changes for so many reasons, it doesn’t determine your beauty, your worth, the respect you deserve, your confidence, your attractiveness, your lovability. It doesn’t change ANYTHING – you are still you, and you are beautiful. Skin, just like size, colour, ability, etc, doesn’t determine your beauty. We are sold this beauty ideal, and cosmetic companies profit from our insecurities of having ‘flawed’ skin. Repeat after me: there is no such thing as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ skin. I used to refuse to leave the house without make-up, and getting ready would inevitably leave me in tears and hating my reflection. I hated leaving the house, feeling like everyone was judging me and thinking how ugly I was. But when I see someone with acne, I don’t think twice about it, so why would they judge me? If anything, if I see someone with cystic acne, I just hope they’ve got treatment because I can really relate to the pain they’re most likely feeling on a daily basis.
Thanks to this community, I can leave the house without make-up quite happily. Admittedly, as much as I like playing with make-up, taking it off can be quite painful – I do use a microfibre cloth (#savetheplanet) now to avoid chemicals on my face that burn, and follow it up with Cetaphil gentle cleanser and moisturiser (the ONLY skincare I can use). I know my worth isn’t determined by whether I have blemished skin, and it certainly doesn’t dictate whether or not I’m beautiful.
Skin holds no moral value. Skin can show that you’ve lived – the lines of laughter, of worry, of being in the sun (but pls put on SPF). It can show when you’re too tired and need to rest, that you need to try some relaxation to lower your stress levels, to drink some more water and stay hydrated. Your skin is a canvas, let it show your feelings, emotions. Let it give you a nudge in the right direction about what you need.
Once I started accepting this concept, it made life easier. I still struggle on some days, and that’s okay. The journey to accepting that my skin isn’t ‘bad’ has been hard, and it is certainly something that I still work on, but I’ve freed up so much time and mental energy – not having to spend time in the morning putting make-up on because I felt I had to, saving countless tears in front of the mirror.
Due to the pain, I still see a doctor and have requested to see a dermatologist again, as the sensitivity is unbearable, but I’m currently trying a different topical treatment which I’m hoping won’t leave my skin as sensitive. Only time will tell! The fact I seek treatment is irrespective of the aesthetic of my skin, rather for comfort and ease, because I can’t reiterate how painfully sensitive my skin is on top of having painful acne. This shift in mindset is important – so please don’t bash me by saying that I can’t be accepting of my acne whilst seeking treatment.
One of my biggest pet-peeves about my skin, is the unsolicited skincare advice I get from people. Countless vegans telling me that that is the way to get rid of my acne (as much as I’d love to go vegan, I can’t because it’s too restrictive for the stage I am in my EATING DISORDER recovery, something which my page is heavily focused on *eye rollllllll*). And no Susan, that £50 night cream really isn’t going to fix my skin, because funnily enough, my skin doesn’t flare up because it’s dirty or dehydrated. The only advice I’ve ever taken is to go dairy-free (or as much as I can, unless I really crave something, in which case I’ll have it before my ED decides to pipe up), something which I have done before – it means I do what I can for the planet, and the hormones in milk aren’t interfering with my skin. It’s pretty effortless for me, and I don’t miss out on anything, because my best friend is vegan, so a lot of what I bake is vegan for her anyway! That being said, it’s a personal choice, and by no means do you need to go dairy-free! You do you boo.
In short, unsolicited skincare advice is just a big no.
Since starting my Instagram account, and following acne-acceptance accounts (@danasuchow was one of the first accounts I followed, and @mynameisjustp is also great), I have been able to embrace my skin, and have since started a stories highlight called #lifewithskin, to show that skin isn’t perfect. I share photos of myself covered in Sudocrem, of my acne, of struggles with dealing with it. I contribute to the movement of normalising acne, of normalising skin for just being skin – it’s not like the photos you see online, it really never is – these are some great photos of celebrities without editing, showing Beyonce, a fashion queen, with acne – it’s NORMAL. Let’s keep normalising acne and skin. There is nothing wrong with you if your skin isn’t how you would like it; it’s okay to not have skin that is portrayed as the beauty ideal (but please seek professional help if it’s painful because I know how hard that is).
Sending acne posi vibes xxxx