There are all sorts of acne: stress-related-and-stressful acne, hormone-rage-induced acne, puberty-sucks acne, bad-timing-single-painful-pimple acne; the kind you see a dermatologist for, the kind you don’t. For a few years, I had the type of acne that was so “bad” that occasionally strangers — entirely unsolicited — would call it out. It was always empathetic, to offer a solution, a nudge to see a doctor. “They have medicine for that, you know.”
I knew. I’d tried it all since middle school: washes, creams, pills. The goal was always the same: to “get it under control,” as though acne were my four-year-old child, hopped up on sugar, running around naked in the supermarket while I ignored the problem. But you can’t ignore acne when it’s on your face. It’s on your face.
What I wish I’d been able to understand during the years my skin made me want to exist outside of it is that acne is neither a death sentence nor a mark of character. It isn’t bad or ugly. It just is. I wish I’d felt like I could leave the house without makeup and still look acceptable. I wish I knew it wasn’t someone else’s job to determine whether it was “acceptable.” I also wish I knew there was nothing deceitful about wearing makeup. I wish I knew it was fine to feel and act as though my acne were an intrusion — that these red things were not welcome. I wish I also knew it was fine to pretend the one above my lip made me something of a ’90s supermodel. Mostly, I wish I knew it was normal, whatever that means.
Because acne’s not a secret, nor is it a flaw, we cast five women who experience breakouts for a bling-y, over-bejeweled glamour-shot of a shoot, sans coverup. The goal was manifold: to speak to women about their various skin relationships, to show others that they’re not the only ones with pimples and scars and insecurities, to create an atmosphere where they feel beautiful and celebrate that beauty, and to get as many shiny, pretty things on their persons as possible for the sake of a magpie’s indulgence.
Their opinions of their skin ranges, and those ranges depend on the day. Some wear makeup daily, some not at all. Some were uncomfortable, some were in their element. Some were mid-breakout, some were healing. The common theme among them? The confidence to say: “This is who I am.”
Hajra Tariq, 23, Pre-Med Student
I’ve had acne since I was 13. I always assumed it would go away, but it didn’t, so I started to cover it up. Then I got used to it. Now, I don’t mind walking around outside without makeup on because I see other people like me.
I tried Accutane, but it was horrible. It boosted my migraines to another level. It made my skin another level of dryness. And it made me feel so weak. It worked on my pimples — they went away (scars stayed), but then when I stopped it, the pimples came back.
When blogging, people will comment: “Your skin is flawless. Your skin is perfect. What do you do?” I used to get that question a lot, but I want to let them know that is not my skin — that is makeup. I use foundation. I don’t want people to think something I’m not, so I comment back and tell them it’s makeup. When I go “live,” I do so with a bare face to let people know it’s okay.
You only show your “best” face [while blogging], not your worst. I wear makeup because it’s part of the full [look] these days and to avoid questions (“Are you okay? Are you sick?”) or to avoid pressure. Some people will treat you differently if you don’t wear makeup. Like you’re dirty. I’ve gotten hateful comments on my Snapchat when I post without makeup about how I should cover up. But I’m like, “Guys, you don’t understand: I’m fine with it.”
Katie Robinson, 31 , Project Manager at an Education Nonprofit
My skin was fine during my teens but then kind of exploded during the middle of my freshman year of college. It cleared up by the time I was in my mid-20s due to a combination of hormonal birth control and topical prescriptions, and for about five or six years, I had pretty clear skin.
My priorities have shifted a bit (which means no more hormonal birth control or topical prescriptions), so the acne has come back. When I feel extra-focused on it, I try to look at the big picture and think: Okay, what will people remember about me when I’m old and gray? Probably not that I had hormonal acne on my chin. They’ll remember more important qualities — hopefully my best qualities. That perspective helps. In the lead-up to my wedding this last fall, however, I tried every cleanser/toner/mask/spot treatment available to try to clear up the spots.
I don’t love having acne at 31, but I recognize it as temporary. I also think it’s fine to have acne, and it’s fine to be really annoyed by it. Both are true for me. I don’t feel pressure to cover it, and as a whole, I’ve started to look at makeup as a fun accessory, rather than something I need to cover my so-called “flaws.” I don’t feel like I need to hide my acne. And that feels like a good place to be.
Jacquelyn Klein, 20, Visual Arts Major
I got my first pimple in middle school. I hid it with a Band-Aid and told everyone that I’d scratched my face. When puberty really hit and one pimple became a face full of acne, I switched tactics. Now, I usually wear coverup and foundation as a base layer. I don’t wear makeup every day, but I cover up my acne to look more presentable and professional. A cat eye and a bit of mascara are enhancements; attempting to hide an irritated cystic pimple staring out from between my eyebrows like a third eye is a necessity. Everyone has that thing they do to fulfill the “look good, feel good” mantra. Some people need their nails to look nice to feel confident. I have to hide my acne.
It’s funny how the phrase “inhabiting someone else’s skin” means to play a character. In this case, the skin I’m in is my own, but not the version of it that I usually broadcast to the world. It was uncomfortable for me to come here today and not wear makeup. I was self-conscious about not being in control of the image and the way my acne appears. I wish I didn’t care, but I also wish I had perfect skin.
I think my insecurity about my skin stems from the fact that acne is a flaw that people assume is indicative of your emotional state and lifestyle. It’s so revealing. Some people can hide their stress. Mine is played out all over my face. People assume I’m not drinking enough water, eating right… Everyone thinks they’re a skincare expert.
Focusing on things that were beautiful about me [rather than my skin] helped boost my confidence when I was younger. I danced ballet, so I would focus on how strong I was. My advice to my younger self: Don’t touch your face. Let the pimples do what they do, leave them alone. Don’t try to cover everything up because that always ends up making it worse. Just do enough to make yourself feel more secure. Know that your skin is not what people are focusing on, and if it is, then those are not the kind of people you should interact with. There are so many more important things to worry about.
Brooklyn Mullen, 21, English Major
Whenever people ask what kind of skin I have, I say, “shitty.” Then I laugh and say, “combination.” I got acne when I was 17. I always cover it up. I work hard on my skin and nothing changes.
Taking the subway here this morning for the shoot with no makeup on, I felt like everyone was looking at me. I could feel any semblance of self-esteem go down the toilet.
This shoot brought my self-esteem back up. I felt beautiful. The clothes and the jewelry helped…and the attention. [Laughs]
I wish I could tell anyone with acne that it’s not disgusting. It’s just you being a human. We are living in a time where flaws are more readily accepted or aren’t considered flaws at all. We don’t have to stress so much to try and be perfect.
Lhemi Sherpa, 29, Student at FIT
My skin started to settle down after I turned 25, 26, but I’ve always had acne issues. I might have been the first girl in my class with acne. I was 14, maybe. The first time I was ever really concerned with it was around 16. I stopped looking in the mirror to avoid what popped up.
After that, I totally accepted it. Not kidding. I’d wear red lipstick but not concealer. My friends who were concerned with their skin would ask, “How can you walk around like that?” It wasn’t part of my identity. I’d have 10 pimples and my friend would have one. She’d freak out and I’d be fine. Everyone deals with things differently.
I saw a girl on the train once with acne, and I could tell she was uncomfortable. She wasn’t making eye contact with anyone. I wish I could tell her that no one is judging her because of her pimples.
Photos by Edith Young; Makeup by Aviva Grossman; Hair by Ritsu Hirayama.