Making Existential Peace With Your Acne

            If you’ve never had a pimple in your life, you’re probably not human. From the age of twelve going forward, my face has always been plagued with spots. They started on my forehead and then as I got older, progressed to mostly showing up on my cheeks and chin. (As I have a cleft chin dimple, this was prime acne real estate.) There is something uniquely humiliating about having acne – that it’s associated with being a greasy little teenager and by association bad hygiene and immaturity. A dermatologist prescribed me the pharmaceutical drug doxycycline and an absurdly expensive retinoid cream, and my face did get better. But there’s no getting around that certain time of the month when my hormones just jump up, bringing me right back to the skin I had when I was fourteen. Acne, for all of its discontents, is natural.  Yet it’s thought of as a “before” picture, represented in media as a stand in for ugliness and weirdness. “It made me feel like a Dalmation,” Chelsea Frazer, Eugene Lang College ’21, said.

The author and a Duane Reade product that doesn't work. 

            What gives acne such an insidious hold on the adolescent and post-adolescent psyche is that nobody talks about it. Everyone can see it on your cheeks or your forehead or your nose, but no one wants to have a conversation about the way it affects your self esteem and just how terrible it is to feel like you’re robbed of the first thing anyone sees when they meet you: your face. For young women especially, we’re presented with the idea that having “bad” skin is somehow our fault for not having the time to adhere to an 8-step exfoliation and moisturizing routine. And for both men and women, the media image in movies and the pop music industry is of clear skin that shines from highlighter, not pore oil. Margot Rosenblatt, a senior at The Horace Mann School, remarked that she spent years putting on wrong-color foundation to try to cover up her acne. I remember someone pulling back my hair and informing me that they could see the color change at the edge of my face,” Rosenblatt said.  “My acne was just a part of my "gross nerd" persona that I kept trying to fight and embrace at the same time all throughout middle school,” Rosenblatt continued to say. “Giving into it felt good for awhile, but over time made me feel worse because it wasn’t who I wanted to be. Everyone saw me as this gross nerd, and I figured if I covered my acne, I could at least cover a part of my grossness.”

            This narrative of acne as “gross” comes from it not being seen as normal. I was struck by seeing one of my favorite performers, Mitski, play an NPR Tiny Desk concert ) with visible acne scars on her cheeks. I had never seen anyone present themselves in public with the little dark spots that I have on my own face. The singer tweeted this year: “if u [sic] have a presentation or meeting or just have to go show ur face in public when u feel like utter unpresentable garbage I suggest u go see my tiny desk video where I showed up to NPR to be documented forever looking like a big pulsing void and radiating pain and I still did it." Yet audiences often praise Mitski’s appearance as being raw or brave, and I’m here to say that there is nothing raw or stripped down about Mitski not concealing her acne scars: Mitski looks normal. Having acne is normal. A woman not putting makeup on her face to cover her acne should not be considered an act of bravery, because while it is a statement, it’s absurd to expect every single woman to cover up her face day-to-day. A whole other tangent is that most men with acne do not feel the need to wear makeup, no matter how much they hate their faces. There is something about acne that is culturally thought of to be unfeminine “You know that neckbeard, superfan stereotype?” Rosenblatt said. “That’s what my acne made me feel like I was.”

Mitski performing "Last Words of a Shooting Star" for Audiotree. Image from Shazam. 

            Acne can be physically painful and no one wants to keep it on their face, but on the flipside no one should feel ashamed for having it or not being able to get rid of it. The medications I took by no means eradicated all of my acne. If you have whiteheads, blackheads, scars, cystic acne, or anything else, your face is normal. Ananya Shrivastava, Eugene Lang College '22 said that "Acne just makes you feel uglier than usual. It makes you feel conscious of showing people your face." No one should feel like that. Let's rob acne of its power by talking about it in public and not thinking of it as gross, but as something most people have dealt with, something normal. And no one's worth should be measured by the attractiveness of their face. Linguist Erin McKean wrote that “Prettiness is not the rent you pay for occupying a space marked ‘female.’” Though this specifically refers to women, it applies to anyone feeling insecurity. Your face does not have to beautiful to be worth loving, and beautiful is not the only good quality out there. After washing my face every single day and night and still having red welts crop up on my cheeks I tried to tell myself that my acne was like me. Stubborn, persistent, and nothing can keep it down.