I was in sixth grade when it began. It started on my chin, little pink angry spots that my mother assured were only be passing symptoms of puberty.
“Drink more water, don’t eat junk food, and it’ll go away.”
I went to an all girls school. By the time I was 16 or 17, my friends’ complexions had magically cleared up. It was as if puberty was a switch that could be turned off and all of a sudden, everyone was beautiful.
Everyone except me. My skin was the worst at 17, when everyone around me was starting to date and go clubbing. I never did. I was too ugly; people didn’t even dare look at me. I had developed deep, painful cystic spots on my chin and cheeks that hurt when I smiled and couldn’t even be popped. My school had a strict no-makeup rule.
Towards the end of high school, my friends and I went on a trip to Bali. We went swimming on beaches and river rafting, and my hair was constantly soaked and stringy so I couldn’t even hide behind my hair anymore. A middle-aged couple on the same tour pointed to my skin and asked me if I was having an allergic reaction to something.
“Your case isn’t the worst,” my dermatologist once told me, as if that would be of any comfort.
“Do you even wash your face regularly?”
I learned to handle unsolicited advice. The classmates who would start a conversation with, “Your skin is real bad, have you tried mud masks?” The teacher who suggested I see a dermatologist, not realizing I’d seen several. The dreaded Asian relatives at family gatherings who would always recommend some herbal remedy that “totally worked for my son/daughter.”
Yes, I would scream in my head, I think about my awful skin every minute of the day and I’ve done and tried all those things you said and more, I’ve wasted countless dollars and raised my hopes again and again on Tetracycline, various antibiotics, herbal medicine, facials, masks, cutting out this and that of my diet, high end skin products, even visited chiropractors who claimed that physiotherapy would cure my face.
I would smile and pretend those snippets of “advice” weren’t just veiled criticisms, that I wasn’t utterly mortified every time sometime came up to me and mentioned my skin, that I didn’t feel completely humiliated about the way their words suggested that I was somehow at fault for not taking better care of myself.
Funny how it’s socially acceptable to casually comment on someone else’s complexion but not on their weight.
There was a story in the local papers about a twenty-something year old who died after he jumped from a building because he had acne. There was a cartoon re-enactment on the front page which showed the dead boy lying facedown. The cartoonist took great lengths to cover the cartoon boy’s face in pimples, I suppose for greater accuracy.
I remember thinking just how well I understood the boy who jumped, and my irrational anger with the cartoonist who felt the cruel need to draw all those spots on the boy’s face. He couldn’t get a break from his acne even after suicide.
I started college with a face full of acne. I was on Accutane by then, which dried out my skin like crazy and made it worse during the first few months. Most people take Accutane for six months; I took it for a year and a half before my face finally cleared up. It wasn’t until afterwards that I heard it was dangerous to take Accutane for such a prolonged period, but I probably wouldn’t have cared even if I had known. Those meds finally made me normal.
But I had started Accutane far too late. I was already in my second year of college when my skin looked alright. I had missed every activity in my freshman year because I thought I wouldn’t be able to make friends due to the condition of my skin. I was bad at makeup; in my first year of college I tried, to no avail, to cover my spots with expensive foundation that I blew my allowance on but didn’t even fit my skin tone.
“Your skin’s only going to get worse if you slather on so much makeup.” The people who say this must never have experienced severe acne. To have severe acne is to avoid eye contact just so people stop looking at the cluster of cysts on your chin, is to miss events and activities because of how socially inept you have become, is to feel ashamed to tell anyone about how depressed you feel in fear of being seen as vain. If, in return for a few hours of normalcy, my acne gets a little worse, so be it.
It’s not as if it could get much worse.
There are no pictures of me from ages 11 to 19. I buried them all in a drawer at home and untagged myself in every Facebook picture that I could find of my old acne-ridden self. I get terrified whenever someone tags me in an older photo. “Show me pictures from when you were younger, you must’ve been adorable,” my boyfriend still asks me sometimes, and I would change the subject immediately.
I have two sets of friends: the ones who knew me when I had acne, and ones who met me after it cleared up. I keep them separate. I dread the day my new friends see old pictures of me and realize how ugly I really am.
I’ve gotten really good at makeup. I don’t have to wear it all the time anymore. I wear my hair short now because I don’t need to hide. People even call me attractive sometimes, but even genuine compliments always sound slightly sarcastic to me.
“Your skin’s really improved,” old friends would tell me, which just make me obsess about how bad my face used to be. Occasionally one of those pre-menstrual spots pops up and paralyzes me with fear, as I think about how easily my life could spiral out of control again. I imagine that I would lose all of my friends.
Last year, I read about something called body dysmorphic disorder. I sometimes wonder if I might have had it in the past. Then I look at older pictures of my acne-ridden self and come to the conclusion that no, it probably wasn’t body dysmorphic disorder. My skin was just that bad.