Acne. I used to think it was a prowling, menacing lurgy that left its mark. Waking up to a zinger on my face could be the difference between a feeling fly and feeling foul. It seems almost cruel that it can cling like fear to shy teens, struggling as they are to face the world. It doesn’t help when beauty brand advertising shows epidermal perfection on every page.
In truth the models in magazine ads are no exception – they’re often blemishLESS as a result of technological touch-ups (photoshop). Even movie stars have been known to have guarantees of CGI in their contracts, to alter their skin in post-production, in case of breakouts.
Breakouts – we all get them, and the bulging shelves of pharmacies around the world are proof of that.
There’s a chain of events that causes spots – diet, pollution, stress – they’re all factors, but the big one, the BIG ONE, is hormones. Taming hormones is like trying to mount a wild horse blindfold. Well, that would leave you seriously injured, but what I mean is that it’s near impossible. Hormones just, RULE. We are at their mercy. As we should be, let’s face it, hormones are the structure for all the profound building blocks that lead our species to survive; without that complex matrix of shenanigans in our body, we wouldn’t be able to transform into our reproductive selves.
Teenagers get spots, women about to get their period get spots, pregnant women in their first trimester get spots, and it doesn’t end there – depending on your unique physiological make up you might just be someone who GETS SPOTS!
My change of attitude to acne (hormones) came about recently, with my 3rd pregnancy. Really, it started with my first pregnancy 13 years ago (see post on Acne Alert here). Before that, I saw spots as a scourge that needed to be fought and controlled. It was a curse – and it was a curse that had been placed specifically on me. The truth is, I was just a typically spotty teenager (and only a mildly spotty one at that) which should have been fine, but I was deeply self-conscious and had very low self-esteem.
So, the spots made me feel EVEN worse about myself. And, typical of the neurosis of shame, I focused my anguish on things I thought I could control – my skin, my eating (bulimia came later) – rather than focusing on why I felt so shit about myself in the first place! And to add to my panic, I landed my first film role when I was 16 (‘Flirting’). Even though I was playing a pubescent girl in the movie, I felt (like any naive young thing) that actresses were perfect skinned, otherworldly beings, and I needed to do whatever it took to be admitted into that rarefied world.
So, in the months before filming commenced, I took a course of anti-biotics (Vibramycin), which I think worked to suppress the zits. A few years and more film offer later I went on a course of Roaccutane, which shred my lips with dryness, made my eyeballs feel like raisins, and I remember being shocked by the small print which said that that specific course of medication could seriously harm an unborn child… but still, I took them, because I was desperate to be ‘perfect’. The pill-popping didn’t end there; at 21 I remember thinking I was getting serious extra benefits when I went on the contraceptive pill and discovered that the regulation of my hormones would also have the effect of keeping my skin spot-free. In fact, there were times when I wasn’t in a relationship but I continued taking the pill because I was addicted to the security of acne-free skin.
I see my 13-year-old daughter now, and she’s starting to show signs of hormonal change, with tiny breakouts – they are the sweetest, most beautiful things. Yes, those spots are beautiful – because they’re telling her, and me, that she’s growing and changing in the most profound ways. She hasn’t asked ‘what to do?’ or changed her behavior in any way – she occasionally uses a mild cleanser, and a moisturizer because her skin gets dry sometimes.
She doesn’t have a ‘beauty routine’, and doesn’t spend more than 30 seconds in any day looking at herself in the mirror. I frankly swoon with pride and relief over that, because I see that nonchalance as a measure of her self love, her self esteem, which, is ultimately what it is. Honestly, it was madness. All that panicking, and searching for a ‘cure’ had FAR more to do with my chronically low self-esteem, than with whether I had spots or not.
I think about that teen, and I want to hug her and tell her that those dewdrops of acne were the new dawn to becoming a beautiful woman, who would one day have children and witness the magnificence of bringing life into the world. That sprinkling of uncomfortable eruptions were signs of newness and growth, and I should have loved myself through it, not bent my body to the will of some demonic taskmaster that only existed in my head. Easier said than done. It’s taken years of ‘growing up’, of healing and acceptance, to realize that my acne terror was a corollary of shame, alongside other shitty symptoms like staying in abusive relationships, eating disorders, and depression.