No one was supposed to ever know I had acne. Not the person staring at my matte concealer-covered face, not my friends who I tagged on MySpace yet left un-retouched next to my personal aura cloud of a 1980s glamour shot blur effect, and certainly not anyone who came over. My medicine cabinet was a well-contrived lie — not of the after school special/soap opera variety but, rather boringly, a coverup job to trick all who went snooping. (I kept my skin prescriptions in a drawer in my bedroom.) Behind the bathroom mirror told a product-packed story of a girl whose skincare routine was for the wealthy and flawless. I liked my babysitting money where I could admire it, but more than anything, I was self-conscious.
No one except for me broke out, I was convinced. No one I knew owned foundation. Back then, the internet was still a place where pervs tried to lure adolescents into their corduroy-covered-couch-stuffed digital dens; if there were forums where young women could safely lament about how they felt like the only human gourd of their friends, I didn’t know about it, and so rather than complain or share tips, I kept quiet. To call it a burden would be dramatic and thank the real lord that I’m no longer 15, but I treated the Doxycycline pills and Benzoyl peroxide I was prescribed like something of a secret. And no secret is less sexy than one between you and your dermatologist with terrible taste in office decor and indoor plants.
This mentality carried over into young adulthood. For the first two years of college — a time when, if your phone alarm went off in class, all female students nodded in sisterly solidarity as you popped a quick pill from that ubiquitous foil pack, I kept my medicinal skincare fairly private. (In retrospect, it was and is no one’s business, but girls talk about everything.)
By junior year, my breakouts were finally in-check and I was on a boring, Cetaphil-only diet. By senior year, I had self-weened off Rx. I graduated and fell face-first into magazine beauty closets, then spent the next few years experimenting with all of the “fun” designer scrubs and serums in trendy packaging that the beautiful people proactively suppressed their age with. Finally! “Have you tried the life-changing molecular so-and-so from the Maldives?” “Why yes I have, it was divine, what’s a blackhead? And thanks for asking.”
It was 2011. The no-makeup makeup look was in-fashion. Blogs were shooting medicine cabinets of the rich and the pore-less with high flash. Skincare as a commodity with which to compare your coolness was on the rise. Shortly after, #topshelfie became a hashtag, the Korean skincare obsession exploded and the whole world was sharing photos of themselves on social media in gold face masks. It was a thing to brag about staying in with your under-eye gel patches. It was self-care, proof of in-the-know club membership and a fun way to drain your paycheck. Just last year, I lusted more over chemical-exfoliants and vitamin-C potions than I did any pair of shoes on the runway.
But to what effect?
At its absolute best, under the care of the most highly-coveted products, my skin looked as though I took care of it. It had consistent weeks and bad days. Sometimes I got pimples, sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes my skin was dry, sometimes it wasn’t. It looked better overall than it ever had, but was that because of expensive, luxury label products? Or was it because I drank more water? Was it hormones? Age? I’m not even sure the answer mattered because what all this sexy skincare stuff is about is the stuff; it’s the collecting, Instagram sharing, the displaying it (curating it) all around your bathroom for your own aesthetic pleasure and the entertainment of guests — with some sort of quiet, private hope that someone truly impressed will submit your medicine cabinet to be considered for mass online display.
And then a few months ago, I gave it all up. My skin began to break out again and I thought, “You know, I could just ask my dermatologist what she recommends.”
I sat in the waiting room and looked around (a different one from my teens, same terrible taste in decor). Everything was plastic and orange. Stacks of old LIFE magazines sat next to corporate ferns. Products lined a few clear shelves that did not entice nor promise dreams of a better life, just better skin. A sign was displayed in a frame on the front desk: “Ask us about the face wash coupons we can offer.” It was kind of depressing, and it was kind of relieving. It was like being reminded that you could wear a white tee and khakis for the rest of your life and no one would bother you, if you really wanted to.
The doctor prescribed me two topical gels, Spironolactone pills and a cleanser that says “SULFER” in giant letters on the label. None of it smells good. None of it’s pretty, although I will say I’ve grown fond of the color scheme. It’s like the normcore of skincare, sans irony. When you open my medicine cabinet, there it is — not because it’s on display but because I actually use it. It gets the job done. And my insurance covers it. And I asked about the face wash coupons: 15% off, just like a beauty closet sample sale.
Photos by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.