I have just looked at myself in the mirror. There are a few acne scars on my left and right cheek. There are three spots on my jawline which are on the verge of drying. And there is a dried spot on my chin which now looks like a black mole. I actually like the look of it. At this point in time, I am happy with my skin.
I sometimes browse through old photographs to see how my skin has changed over the years. Growing up, I don’t remember looking at my skin with a critical gaze or noticing anything problematic about it. However, my equation with my skin got complicated after I moved to London and got into a relationship.
I don’t know whether it was a change of climate or diet, but I started to develop acne, a few months after my move. We have all had pimples during puberty and for most of us, the skin clears after some time. I don’t remember getting pimples when I was younger. At least I didn’t see any in my old pictures. It’s only now I know that adult acne is a thing and is similar to adolescent acne, with respect to causes and treatment.
In the beginning, I was blithely unaware of what was happening on my face till my partner at the time pointed it out. I am not overly superficial but I do understand that beauty is not necessarily skin deep for all and that looks do matter to some of us. Also, ‘being in love’ has a way of making us do things for our partners.
We were in a long-distance relationship so video calls were the only mode of communication. It was during one such call that he brought up my acne. I didn’t think much of his comment then and treated it as just an observation rather than a reflection of his discomfort with my skin. However, I wanted to make it better.
Of Topical Creams and Side Effects
If you look online for acne treatment, Benzoyl Peroxide comes up as one of the main methods. I got myself a tube from the pharmacy and followed the instructions on the packet. Or so I thought. But clearly I hadn’t because when I woke up the next morning, my skin had turned an angry shade of red. It was so dry that even smiling hurt. And if I looked closely, I could see that the texture resembled the scales on a reptile. It looked vicious and I oscillated between looking and not wanting to look.
UK’s National Health Service website gives detailed information on how to use , possible side effects and how to cope with them. The advice is to use a gel or a facewash with 5% Benzoyl Peroxide. Mine was 10%. It also says to not to use it if you already have damaged or broken skin or bad acne filled with pus (I had both) as these need to treated by a doctor first, which I didn’t do. No wonder my skin looked like an eggplant roasted to make baingan bharta.
I am baffled that I didn’t bother doing any research back then before putting something on my face. So strong was the need to get good skin that it overshadowed common sense.
I sent him a selfie showing the result of benzoyl peroxide. An untouched photo as filters only served to make the flaw glaring. I was told to persist with the treatment; that thing would improve after a few days. It takes four weeks for this thing to work. I tried it for another day or two and gave up. It’s not like he was going to see me and kiss my spotty face anytime soon. However, the conversation around acne never ended.
Pimple puncture was next in line. Also commonly known as squeezing or picking a spot, it is alright if you get it done professionally at an aesthetician’s. But if you do it at home without the necessary hygiene and sanitary conditions, you tend to worsen your situation as the bacteria from your pus-filled pimples can spread on your face, leading to more pimples. It’s painful, bleeds, and leads to scarring. The best thing to do is to leave it alone. But by this point, I was beginning to feel self-conscious about my skin and was willing to try anything that was told to me. Things got to such a head that once when I was on a bus, the woman sitting next to me said, without any provocation whatsoever, ‘what happened to your face.’
When I looked at myself in the mirror I did not like what I saw. My face made me feel unclean even after a thorough shower. Face washes, face packs, facials—I tried it all. I would have good skin for a few days and just as I was settling into feeling good about myself, there was a pimple--and then another one—like pebbles stuck inside your shoe that you cannot get rid of. It was stressful. And while stress does not cause acne, it can worsen the situation and slower the healing if you already have acne.
Leaving My Skin Alone, And Healing
I don’t know why my skin was so important to him. It’s not like we were seen in public beyond a two-week holiday every other year. He said I wasn’t proactive in curing my acne; that anyone else would have consulted a doctor by now, but I roam around like a leper with all that on my face.
Finally, I saw a gynaecologist who put me on birth control pills. I saw instant results and it felt great. However, it was a chore to remind me to take the pill at the same time every day and refill the prescription before I ran out.
The particular pill that I was on couldn’t be taken for more than two years in a row. When she moved me to a different pill, I experienced more breakouts, bloating, and mood swings. So she put me back on the first pill. Oh, the sheer pointlessness of it all...
The relationship eventually ended. But long before it was nearing its end, I stopped taking the pill. Yes, there was the occasional breakout but I tried to ignore it. And, I stopped picking at my spots. Living with my acne made me realise that there were bigger problems to contend with than mere vanity.
I won’t lie, I sometimes still get bothered by a spot or two but I am getting more comfortable with my skin now. In these past few months, I have done more research on what exacerbates acne and have moderated my diet to see if it helps. Cutting down dairy and processed food has worked for me but if I really feel like having a grilled cheese and ham sandwich, I don’t stop myself. I look after my skin by keeping it clean, drinking a lot of water, getting exercise, and not using comedogenic products. I don’t use any medication for the occasional acne. The mood swings and bloating now are only when I am expecting my period and that’s how I like it. However, the biggest favour I have done for my skin is to leave my skin alone—physically by not touching it, and mentally by not obsessing over a pimple. It’s an ongoing process and I sometimes do wish for 100% clear skin but not more than a dream job or a book deal.
We all have the right to aspire to a certain ideal of beauty, whatever our definition of it might be. But it’s imperative that we approach this idea from a place of agency and knowledge. If you are doing something to your body or face, do it because you want to do it, not because others think it will be better for you or will influence the way they perceive you.
( Shyama Laxman is a London-based writer and poet. She writes mainly about gender, sexuality and LGBTQ issues. Her work has been published in The Quint, Huffington Post, ShethePeople.TV, Muse India and Gaysi. Her new poem 'The Nudes Editor' is published by Guts Publishing in their Sending Nudes anthology.)