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I was around nine when I got my first monster zit. It was a throbbing, pea-sized implant that sat on my chin, and oozed a milky fluid when I poked it in the mirror.
My whole family had suffered from acne, my mother told me. Over the next couple of years, a few blemishes would set up camp on the lower areas of my face, but nothing so bad that a little Maybelline couldn’t fix.
A few years later when my brother and I were both teenagers, he would go on to use Roaccutane to treat a nasty case of zits smattered all along the bottom half of his face. But me, with my dewy complexion? I’d eluded the genetic stork. I had won adolescence.
My acne decided to stay dormant until my mid-20s, giving me a false sense of hope that came shattering down when my stress levels sky-rocketed as I became one of those brazen careerists. My self-esteem disappeared completely; I would often feign illness or pretend I was broke to avoid social situations.
Looking back, I should have gone to the doctor. I shouldn’t have demonized fluorescent lighting, stethoscopes and needles for so long. But I did, and it’s a journey that’s made me question the nature of inner beauty. Who gets to decide what inner beauty is? And what does our dermis say about our interior world?
My journey down the digital rabbit hole of new age self-help began when I was scrolling through Facebook one day. I had come to Perth form Sydney to heal after a series of anxiety attacks. I was crying all the time, and when I wasn’t crying, I was chewing the inside of my mouth in a state of nervous tension. I hated absolutely everything and everyone, especially myself.
A friend had shared a post by a popular blogger with a head of 90s raver pink hair. She was one of those new breeds of happiness-spreading media personalities who spoke about joy and sadness, the former which came in the form of cupcakes, the latter which was totally unnecessary for human existence. It had come just at the right time.
I was willing to do anything to feel good again, and her brand of positivity was something I responded to.
I didn’t even know that self-care was a thing, but there she was: a pixie-like harbinger of good vibes and sparkles. I devoured all of the aforementioned blogger’s material on self-love, which led me on a journey into unknown internet territory: the digital world of self-help, which deconstructed and skewed the works of Marianne Williams, Wayne Dyer, Louise L. Hay and Eckhart Tolle towards a hyper-connected audience of lost and apathetic millennials.
The digital world of self-help purports to heal a variety of mental health issues: eating disorders, depression, anxiety, PTSD, chronic stress and OCD. The online self-help sphere also claims to have healed physical maladies, like asthma, eczema, and even acne.
In the words of one of its godmothers, Louise L. Hay, “You have the power to heal your life, and you need to know that.…Claim and consciously use your power.”
So I began to meditate. I started practicing EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique, otherwise known as "tapping"). I read Wayne Dyer. I read Gabrielle Bernstein. I listened to the gospel of Abraham-Hicks. And as I fed my mind with new age soul food, I would refuel my Qi with the high-vibrational energy of green smoothies, chlorophyll and essential oils.
I certainly felt more energetic adding spinach to my smoothies and popping spirulina tabs like breath mints. And because I’d been vegan for 6 years already, I was glad I’d found a brand of health and wellness that worshipped super foods like pop stars.
I was no longer the freak with the kale salad. I was enlightened! I was finding my bliss! My bowel movements were transcendental experiences!
Eventually, my mental health improved. I was happy and calm, and I was able to concentrate on studying again. An unsightly patch of white heads around my cheeks had disappeared, and I treated the standard period-time acne as a given for females everywhere.
Because I’d had such success with alternative therapies and my mental health, it was a natural progression to apply these same techniques to the adult acne that interrupted my mid-20s. I wanted to get to the root cause of the problem, not just treat the manifestation of what I thought was a great, emotional affliction.
A simple Google search reveals a whole library of articles, videos and forums on the subject of the Law of Attraction and pimples. The cure, or so they say, is a potent combination of positive thinking, manifesting and unconditional self-love. The cause? Toxic thoughts and low-vibrational energy.
The pustules that erupted on my face in my early 20s were a rude alert for what was to come in my mid-20s. I was a student working part-time as a marketing coordinator for a coffee franchise, a position I found incredibly stressful.
My chin and jaw-line erupted with an angry, red, solar system of planets every time my boss yelled at me because she needed me to email her a blank Excel spreadsheet, or every time I was scolded for going to the bathroom.
My acne wouldn’t go away, and I was a furious face-picker. What was my internal world trying to tell me? Hadn’t I realigned myself with universal love already? I came to the conclusion that there was something terribly wrong with me on a metaphysical level.
I would scratch and prod and pick at my face in a bid to release my body of whatever harmful toxins were preventing me from reaching my higher truth. But whereas most pickers find this therapeutic, I was always unsatisfied. In my mind, the root cause of my problem was somewhere in an unpickable place, buried deep inside my meridians.
I began tapping more often, exploring teenage-hood issues that might have manifested in my body as acne. Tapping requires that you create a positive affirmation before you begin, asking that you emphasise on self-acceptance and non-judgment.
“Even though I have an army of small, red monsters taking over my face, I truly and deeply love myself,” I would whisper to myself, using my middle and index fingers to prod various parts of my body. I tapped, and the acne stayed. I was heart broken, but not entirely deterred.
Like any Gen-Y with an internet connection, I turned to the modern day shaman of our times: Google. I searched for natural acne remedies, and discovered a special corner of the Internet dedicated to curing acne through the power of self-love, cocktails of vitamins and Manuka honey masks.
Because I didn’t love myself enough, I felt I didn’t deserve to draw breath, and pathetically inadequate for not being able to afford $80 jars of magical honey from New Zealand.
All of these glowing ,beautiful people online had mastered the art of manifestation and were living their lives makeup free, while I was still stuck looking at a bleeding face in the mirror.
In Heal Your Body: A-Z, Louise L. Hay says: “If we are willing to do the mental work, almost anything can be healed.” I felt incredibly ineffective. This bred more feelings of worthlessness, and the acne got worse, too.
I read that if I just learned to accept my acne, apparently it would go away. I found it difficult to accept something that was so obviously ruining my life, and soon, what little finances I had as a student. I think you know where this is headed -- more stress.
A friend recommended I see a naturopath, and finding one was easy in the city of Fremantle, a hub of alternative medicines and natural living.
I was hooked up to a machine called a magnagraph, a medical electronic microprocessor which collects data by measuring capillary pulse waves. These reflect your internal state – liver toxicity, spleen and adrenal levels.
I was told that my cortisol levels were very high. I explained the nature of my stress: I was human with daily concerns that caused me trouble. I was also feeling awfully tired lately and had a particularly douchey case of hormonal acne that wouldn’t fuck the hell off, no matter how many times I imagined my body bathing in white light.
I should "learn to stress less," the naturopath prescribed, along with a potent elixir of artichoke globe and various serious tasting liquids. I could feel my pulse rise as I swiped my credit card to pay for the treatment.
If the tincture worked on anything, I will give it credit for curing a particularly bad and ongoing case of chronic gas that made first dates awkward. I also got my energy levels back. But my face still looked like a connect-the-dots game.
No tactic was working. My strategy for perfect inner and outer beauty was failing. But I still hadn’t lost faith in the fact that I was eternally flawed.
More boulders blocking my path to spiritual and dermatological salvation appeared over the next few years, sending my stress levels on a dangerous yo-yoing trajectory: I was 24 and my mother got cancer; I moved interstate again; a promising job prospect turned out to be highly unenjoyable; my personal finances were obliterated; my personal finances were restored when I took on my first full-time job; first full-time job required me to work in a human pressure cooker, and also, fluorescent lighting sucks; I got my dream job, only to be bullied at work; and then I left my dream job to pursue my dream of being a freelance writer.
I was 26 and self-employed, just like I’d always wanted. I had made it. I could work in my pajamas and forgo daily grooming rituals reserved for client meetings and spontaneous lunch dates. I felt like I should be feeling confident and free like a downtown Carrie Bradshaw, but the pressure of freelancing was incomparable to all of my jobs before.
Checking my bank account felt like an intravenous drip pumping adrenaline through my body, and I would spend my days hunched over my computer trying to hide my face from the world. Sure enough. my acne had erupted again; it was a volcano of self-doubt and self-imposed pressure.
For the first time in my life, I felt like brushing my hair and wearing a bra was an effort. I felt like I wasn’t worthy of nice things – makeup, ponytails, real pants – so I mirrored to the outside world what I felt on the inside. I didn’t love myself; I couldn’t love myself, and it was all my fault. I had received the good word from a noble source: nobody will love you until your love yourself.
Alternative beauty had taught me that self-love was your lifeline and the cure-all for metaphysical and biological illnesses. If I couldn’t love myself, then I was truly ugly on the inside.
By this time, I’d wasted so much money on vitamin stacks – D3, cod liver oil, Vitex, Zinc, the entire B vitamin group and ultra-high doses of vitamin b5 – and e-books from unqualified bloggers. I’d tried facials and expensive skincare products from evangelical beauty therapists who swore by the power of fruit enzyme masks. They did nothing for me.
I was making a small amount of money on what writing work I could find, and rented a desk at a co-working space. I got along well with the woman seated next to me, a 32-year-old marketer who owned her own business. We bonded over our mutual love for procrastinating and vino, and our hatred for our hormonal acne.
She seemed to handle her skin woes better than I did, and when she went on Roaccutane, her confidence blossomed. Her skin started to dry out, her breakouts lessened, and she seemed to be on the road to clear skin nirvana.
It was Western medicine. It was frighteningly conventional. It was delivered under the glow of a fluroscent prison, and it treated the symptoms, not the cause. But it worked. And I wanted in, and I loosened my grip on alternative beauty.
Dr Tran was an abrupt and straight-shooting woman who prescribed a course of antibiotics and a topical treatment. All for a tidy sum of $250. Within three months, my skin was 99% clear, bar a few battle scars.
Within six months, I was leaving the house without makeup. People were telling me skin looked “So good!” and every day I was getting comments on my literally “glowing” complexion.
I’d spent close to $2,000 trying to remedy my skin with natural, alternative and traditional methods – not to mention the emotional cost – and all it took was a straight-shooting doctor and a few pills to make me feel confident again.
The most important thing Dr Tran taught me was that it wasn’t my fault. I wasn’t a bad person for having acne, I’d just “lucked out” in the complexion department.
Acne is caused by a combination of factors: excess sebum, blocked pores, a build up of bacteria and inflammation. A number of environmental factors can cause flare-ups: stress, hormones, genetic bad luck and cosmetics. What doesn’t cause acne? Too little EFT. Lack of vision boarding. Poor manifestation skills. You get the point.
I still have links to the alternative health and wellness industry, but I approach any modality with a healthy level of skepticism. I’m a dedicated meditator, but I use it for a good night’s sleep and to calm my nerves after a hard day.
I believe that a whole foods-based diet works, although I would prefer to eat a burger. I’ve tried acupuncture and cupping to cure night—time hot flashes, and have been pleasantly surprised by the cooler evenings that followed. I believe in doing what works for you, as long as there’s a tangible benefit.
As for beauty? It is more than skin-deep. If I’ve learned anything along the way, it’s that people are wonderfully complex, flawed and fucked up on the inside. But this is what makes us beautiful. I may be a judgmental, quick-tempered know-it-all who needs to learn to use her manners, but it’s not the essence of who I am. Sometimes, ugliness stops where your face ends and your hypercritical ego shuts down, and the rest of yourself begins.