I don’t remember when I first noticed my own acne, but I do remember when others started noticing it.
It was picture day in second grade—I know that because I remember wearing the boat-neck sweater that little Laura has on in her school photo—and my class was lining up to get our squinty-eyed, washed-out pictures taken.
One of my classmates, totally innocently, said to me, “What’s on your face?”
I don’t think I felt particularly insulted or upset about it: as a kid who was already a gold-medal worrywart, there wasn’t much that could bother me more than the thoughts that ran through my own head. I responded with a mumbled “pimples”—I’ve clearly always been a quick thinker—and changed the subject.
I was fortunate enough to have parents with decent health insurance who were concerned about my skin and its effect on my psychological well-being. They realized that a second-grader with acne was probably atypical (it was at the time, but now physicians are saying that more and more children under the age of 13 are developing acne).
We consulted my pediatrician about the pimples when I went in for a checkup, and I made both my mom and the doctor double over with laughter when I mistakenly referred to the ass-in on my face, having decided that was a much more appropriate pronunciation for the way the word "acne" was spelled!
Hilarious mispronunciations aside, the dermatologist I saw prescribed topical Retin-A, which for the most part we received in the form of free samples. That worked for a short while, but I’ve also tried Clearasil (which didn’t work, contrary to those omnipresent commercials), various forms of benzoyl peroxide, washes that were practically 100% salicylic acid, witch hazel, Nature’s Cure acne pills (also had no effect), Nature’s Cure acne body spray (which is actually really effective on my bacne and chest zits), witch hazel, exfoliating scrubs from gentle to sandpapery, dozens of different cleansers from $3 to $15 (my desire to clear up my skin is outweighed by my inability to part with money) and plain old soap.
The Pill has helped a bit, mostly for those first few months after going on it.
Nothing has ever made my acne go away. Each different product tends to work reasonably well for a few weeks, but those swollen bumps always triumph eventually. The scarring is probably my least favorite part—I’ve had acne scars for longer than a lot of my peers have been getting acne, but the good news is that I’ve gotten really good at using concealer!
One factor that has worked in my advantage, at least as far as acne goes, is that I look older than I am so there’s no risk of being mistaken for a teenager. I don’t notice a lot of stares from adults, but I have had a few questions from kids.
The first was a 4-year-old who tapped my wrist and whispered in my ear, “How did you get those boo-boos on your face?” and the most recent was a fourth grader who asked “Why do you have red spots on you?” while gesturing to her own face, neck, and chest.
I always feel a confusing mixture of tickled and vaguely hurt when kids point out the zits on my skin. It’s hilarious when they’re so frank, but I also know that kids are frequently brutally honest, so what they say reflects what they’re actually observing.
I’ve also never figured out a good way to respond to these questions. Should I take the “everyone-is-unique” tack and say something like “We’re all different and that makes us beautiful”? Or maybe I could try scaring them straight and telling them that the acne came because I didn’t mind my own business.
I’m sure that, most of the time, my acne isn’t as noticeable as I think, something that’s both a comfort and a stressor. If there are times that I’m exaggerating the severity of my acne, then doesn’t it follow that there could be days when I think I look fine but am actually seriously broken out?
This story doesn’t have an ending: I don’t have some miracle cure to give away or a life-changing piece of wisdom to impart. I can’t even think of a reasonable piece of advice. I can only say that, as frustrating and infuriating as my acne is, I’ve gotten used to it.
The grudging tolerance of my zits sometimes crosses the line into what one might tentatively call fondness.
Once when I was a kid, I exclaimed to my mom, “I love my pimples! I want to keep them forever!” As much as I love taking a multitude of selfies during the patches of time when I have relatively clear skin, I always feel slightly wary and find myself checking the mirror for new pimples even more than I usually do.
I don’t love having acne, but most of the time I’m OK with it. If nothing else, my skin is unique—and why worry more than I already have about something that I’ve had for two-thirds of my life and will likely have for years to come?
I’ve gotten to the point where I usually feel neutral towards my skin and I think that’s a positive place to be. We all have minor aspects of our physical appearance that we don’t like, but short of expensive medical procedures, there isn’t anything we can do about them.
I’ve known people who hate their feet, their hands, the width of their shoulders, their freckles or noses or toe hair, but the truth is that most of the time, we’re the only ones who notice our biggest insecurities.
I don’t think we need to get to a point where we’re in love with what we perceive as flaws—if we can just become neutral about their existence, that's good enough.