Until last year, I used to routinely define myself as a ‘dermatology disaster’. Name an embarrassing skin condition and there is a good chance I dealt with it at some point in my life. But my number one enemy for the past 25 years has always been: acne.
Acne has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Growing up, I remember witnessing my mom’s struggle with what I recall to be occasional breakouts. She would agonize over each and every blemish, and label herself as ‘having bad skin’ despite the fact that it was not that visible to me or anyone else around her, and beyond the even more obvious reality that skin isn’t morally good or bad in the first place.
In our house, acne was deemed largely unwelcome and a great embarrassment to self and others, that needed a complete and utter mobilization to treat, hide, annihilate. [i]
So when I hit puberty and started breaking out, which, retrospectively appears to be COMPLETELY NORMAL, my mom and I both ran to the doctor and didn’t even consider saying no when he proposed to start birth control pills to ‘regulate’ the issue. So I went on the pill, regardless of some of the nasty side effects of the heavily dosed Diane-35 and the fact that breakouts would have probably faded away on their own once my hormones had balanced out with time… Birth control worked wonders and I ended up staying on some form of it for fifteen years (yep, 15). Most of that time was spent fearing the return of the unwelcome companion nobody would dare to name every time I had to change pills or come off birth control for a few months. But, as it turns out, fear is not known to prevent acne (quite the opposite, actually!). And, as I was about to learn later in life, acute perfectionism and toxic messages about beauty and femininity are no effective cure for acne either.
Fast forward to 2014, I had just started working full time again after becoming a mom, when I came across an article about a potential link between gut issues and skin health. Bingo! I started removing gluten, which seemed (at the time) like an absolute chore & burden. But I was determined and my willpower was not to be defeated. I had to find the ‘culprit’ for this congenital ‘bad skin’ and wouldn’t stop there. By the end of 2015, I was eating no gluten, no dairy, no nuts, no legumes, no processed foods, no sugar, no alcohol…for weeks and months on end. It is fair to say, acne dieting led me straight into disordered eating.
Needless to say, I was at my worst mentally (living in a massive energy deficit doesn’t do any favours to your prefrontal cortex: by which regulating emotions and showing wisdom proves impossible). I used to spend most of my time overwhelmed at work, obsessed with food or yelling on the kids at home. It meant spending my free time entirely consumed by my own fears and a desperate quest for control for my ‘skin health’ (code name for weight & beauty).
Control over my skin, my body, my looks was effectively ruling my whole life.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this desperate grasp for control functioned as an (albeit) toxic but necessary band aid for deeper mental issues that were left unaddressed and widely unacknowledged since childhood: anxiety, imposter syndrome, perfectionism, an inability to feel & manage emotions in an appropriate manner and a desperate need for vulnerability, authenticity, self-care.
As I am writing this, at the end of 2018, I consider myself fully recovered from my disordered eating days. I eat everything without fear and follow my body’s hunger cues, and my appearance doesn’t define me as much as it used to. Of course, a decade of chronic dieting didn’t do my skin any favours. I still experience chronic cystic acne: deep, painful breakouts typically located around my jaw and mouth, just as I did when I had virtually eliminated all food groups but protein and vegetables from my daily diet.
I can’t say that I enjoy living with acne. And I certainly am not giving up on trying all the skincare & experimenting new solutions for hormonal balancing – especially natural ones. But I somehow surrendered to it. I am done making my whole life gravitate around fighting it.
I am also done feeling like I HAVE to hide my acne and I am done self-depreciating myself because of it.
I am done pretending I am flawless. I don’t have to be… I am just me. I am way more diverse than what my appearance shows on the outside. It took me a quarter of century, but I am now accepting that acne is a part of me and will most likely always be: spots, scars, hyperpigmentation, present and past pain, all rolled into a neatly package. None of it defines me as a person. Anyone disgusted by it can just keep on walking. My true allies will see past this peculiar outer shield.
Through the makeacnenormal hashtag, I want people to know it is totally fine to live with acne. That they don’t have to diet themselves into a disorder or look like they’re apologizing for their appearance to others. I want more representation for it in the media. In fact, I want all skin conditions to get more airtime. I want to grow a community of skin sufferers to get a safe space for sharing and for finding support in common challenges.
Watch this space for more acne and skin talks. Check out my list of inspirations when it comes to skin positivity here. And reach out if you need support. We are in this together.
[i] Just as a caveat: I am not at all blaming my mom for any of my skin challenges or her attitude to it! I know she only did what she thought was the right way to deal with this painful challenge at the time. Love you, mom!! zits and all.<3