By Maria Hanophy, intern 2015
When you think of being body positive, you probably think of loving the parts of your body that society tells you to hate: your thighs, your hips, or your stomach. But would you ever think to include your acne on the list of things to love about yourself? As the body’s largest organ, our skin deserves to be loved just as much as the muscle, fat, and bones it covers.
Like our thighs, hips, and stomachs, skin conditions are stigmatized by a culture that demands perfection. The bumps and redness caused by skin conditions like acne, psoriasis, and eczema become imperfections, and are therefore deemed “undesirable.” People who have these conditions often seen as ugly are made to feel ashamed of what occurs naturally to tens of thousands of Americans a year.
Around seventh grade, I began experiencing regular acne breakouts. Although often aggravating and sometimes painful, I didn’t see anything wrong with them. Kids in school had acne, my brother had acne, and my mom told me the truth: Almost everyone gets acne. In fact, according to the American Academy of Dermatology, nearly 85 percent of all people have acne at some point in their lives.
I didn’t see my acne as a problem, just something everyone goes through when they hit puberty. But by the time I got to high school, I started to feel self-conscious about my skin. Surprisingly, barely anyone else in my grade had noticeable acne. I actually remember one girl running around the cafeteria in distress because she had her first zit ever and didn’t know how to get rid of it. As a ninth grader desperately trying to fit in, this wasn’t a great thing for me to hear. I began to feel alienated. I was already afraid to say or like the wrong things; then I became worried about how my skin looked.
Truthfully, my acne was never severe, but seeing so many people with perfect skin did nothing to help my self-esteem. As an impressionable teenager, I took most of my cues from the media. A lot of “teens” on TV and in movies are played by actors in their twenties who are over the hormonal hump of puberty, or by teenagers wearing pounds of makeup. It was really damaging for me to see only characters with perfect skin. I was a huge fan of shows like Zoey 101, That’s So Raven, and Hannah Montana, whose leading actors didn’t have any visible acne, let alone lonesome pimples. If a character did have a blemish, it formed the plot of an entire episode. I remember an episode of Sister, Sister in which Tia was too embarrassed to go on a date because she had a pimple, so she made Tamera go on the date for her. I saw teens freaking out about one zit, and I learned to do the same.
Even now, when I turn on the TV, I am bombarded by Proactiv commercials telling me that acne is undesirable and will halt me from progressing in any form in our society. Supposed users of the product speak about how they didn’t feel beautiful until their skin was clear. There are even creams and washes to take care of acne scars, showing that acne treatment doesn’t end until your skin is free of all marks.
Like acne, skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema have been stigmatized in a way that labels them “unattractive.” Psoriasis is an immune disorder manifested in the production of excess skin cells that pile up on the surface of the skin, causing reddish patches, spots, or bumps. Many commercials for psoriasis treatments focus less on health and more on physical appearance. In these commercials, passersby gawk at those with psoriasis, making it clear that the condition is embarrassingly ugly. This is ridiculous, considering how common psoriasis is. In the United States, about 7.5 million people have psoriasis, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.
Eczema (an itchy, red rash) is another very common skin condition; the National Eczema Association (NEA) estimates that over 30 million Americans have eczema. The NEA’s website highlights the experiences of some of these people, like 17-year-old Kendall, who wrote about attending a camp with other kids with skin diseases “where no one stares at your scars or leaves the swimming pool when you dive in.” Stories like Kendall’s reveal the alienation those with eczema may feel due to their condition.
So why are common skin conditions stigmatized and labeled disorders, blemishes, or imperfections? It all comes down to society’s definition of beauty.
Society tells us that beauty is perfection, so we must erase any trace of “imperfection” on our skin. No redness, bumps, wrinkles, stretch marks, or other natural skin occurrences can exist on our bodies if we want to be considered beautiful and successful. We’ve all seen magazine covers that use Photoshop to completely alter celebrities’ bodies. Their skin is airbrushed as well — almost beyond recognition, to wipe away any blemishes.
Does Harry Styles‘ skin in this retouched photo even resemble skin??
Thankfully, skin-positive celebrity crusaders are making it known that their skin isn’t perfect. Last spring, Grammy-winning artist (and actual teenager) Lorde reminded us that “flaws are OK” by tweeting two photos of herself: one that was retouched and one that wasn’t.
Our capitalist society plays into this need for perfection by making sure that we shell out $24 billion globally each year to fix our “flawed” skin through skin care products. How many commercials do we see every day for creams that eliminate stretch marks, wrinkles, or scars? Society shuns skin markings like these because they show that human beings aren’t perfect, and our bodies are always changing. Women especially suffer from this, because we are expected to maintain flawless, perfect bodies.
It is important to recognize skin positivity within the wider context of body positivity. In my experience, body positivity tends to focus more on body shapes and sizes, and not so much on skin. The Tumblr blog “Skin Positive” strives to remedy this. I spoke to Lauren, who runs the blog, and she explained that “we might easily be able to recognize when a model has been photoshopped shape-wise, but not when her skin has been airbrushed for ‘blemishes.'”
If we are to truly promote body positivity, we must be critical of skin discrimination. We can combat it by recognizing that skin conditions are natural and unique to each person. We need to understand that people with skin conditions do not always view their skin as problematic, and therefore may not be looking for a quick fix or a cure. As Lauren told me,
“Skin conditions are a health issue that is very visible, which means that people are always trying to give well-meaning but ultimately unhelpful, hurtful, and in some cases dangerous advice. I think it is important that people with skin conditions learn to own their body as their own, and make decisions based on the best evidence with support from their doctor and dermatologist, rather than out of desperation for a ‘cure.'”
In my twenty years on this planet, I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time staring at my skin in the mirror, applying cover-up, and willing my pores to shrink. I’ve spent so much money on acne treatments and makeup, trying to make my skin look like the perfect, airbrushed skin I see on TV and in magazines. Truthfully, I believe there’s nothing wrong with wanting to change your skin, as long as you are doing it safely and because it makes you feel good. But I was covering up my acne because I was ashamed of the way it looked. I thought people would think I didn’t wash my face or only ate junk food if they saw me without foundation or concealer.
My big “aha moment” came last summer when I went makeup-free almost every day. I worked at a day camp, where I would sweat and swim and little kids were grabbing my face for seven hours a day. It was impractical to wear makeup, so I didn’t. For the first few days, I thought I looked ugly. Like, seriously ugly. But I slowly got used to my face without makeup, and when I wore eyeliner and foundation to a concert in August, I was relieved when I washed it off at the end of the night!
Yes, I still sometimes look at my acne and think, “Can you just go away?” Yes, I wear cover-up and foundation. And yes, I still look longingly at people with perfect skin. But I’ve learned that my acne is just a part of my face. My acne didn’t affect how hard I worked at camp over the summer. My acne doesn’t make me any better or worse than anyone else. If your skin condition is painful or inconvenient, or you just don’t like the way it looks, seek treatment or a way to cover it up. But you should never change your body because you think someone else might not like it.
The expression is “love the skin you’re in,” and it should mean just that.