I Have “Bad Skin” — and I Do Not Need Your Advice
State of Skin is our monthlong exploration of what women love, hate, and need to know about their skin — from the most common concerns to the best kept secrets in beauty.
You know you’ve had acne when you have very specific memories of zits:
That one time during the seventh-inning stretch at a major league baseball game, when you raised your arm and a twinge of pain notified you of the planet forming in an ingrown hair. The rest of the game you tried to covertly push your arm fat into your armpit, and by the bottom of the ninth there was a satisfying, almost audible “pop” letting you know that the tyranny was over. At least until tomorrow/the next month/forever. Acne is a life sentence, and it’s one of the only “flaws” that we as a society refuse to embrace.
Some of my other notable zits include:
1. The one I popped in my purple locker mirror freshman year of high school, right before my crush approached me to ask about the world civ homework, none the wiser.
2. An ear zit that definitely made a sound after a week of driving me crazy.
3. A zit on my downstairs area that I only discovered after the most painful wipe of my life.
4. The pile of blackheads that pushed out of my nose like that Play-Doh hair toy from the ’90s during my first round of Accutane in college.
5. The one in the middle of my back that I had to do a yoga position to finally eject.
6. The beauty mark that was never a beauty mark but probably a decade-old blackhead.
7. The secret eyebrow one that popped as I was filling in the hairs with my brow pencil. Ouch.
8. Any number of boob zits.
9. The one that showed up in the middle of my nose that decided to leave a chocolate chip scar there for about a year.
The truth is bad zits happen to good people. Mine are less for lack of hygiene (my pillow cases are among the cleanest you’ll ever find) and more to do with raging hormones. Every single month without fail I will get a giant pustule on my chin and wonder how it could be happening to me (as if it hasn’t happened every month before for the past 16 years), and then boom, my period comes to town, ruining sheets and moods in its wake.
Birth control kind of helped, in the way that gaining weight and crying all the time helps.
Accutane definitely assisted in drying out everything (everything), excessive joint pain, general lethargy, and giving me a lifetime struggle with night blindness (that’s right, for any teens reading this, the acne prescription you already have to log on to a website and take a quiz to get each month has a LOT of epic side effects your dermatologist may have forgotten to mention). If it’s dark out, my eyes might as well be closed because nothing’s gonna stop me from walking into a ditch or into the mouth of a bear or other things that lie in wait in the shadows. Mostly, though, I just bruise my shins on my late-night walks to the fridge. It hasn’t deterred my ice cream habit, but it sure tries.
My favorite thing about having acne as an adult (no, acne doesn’t magically go away on your 18th birthday, like you may have been led to believe) is the unsolicited advice. People love weighing in on other people’s ailments. Have you ever tried to do anything? There’s someone with a superiority complex just waiting to relate their unrelated experience to yours.
“I’m thinking of going to the gym more.”
“You should try CrossFit! You’re wasting your time if you do anything else, honestly. I feel like my full body workouts . . .” blah blah ad infinitum.
“I’ve been feeling anxious lately.”
“Yoga!” they’ll scream directly into your mouth. “And acupuncture! Needles will help with your anxiety! Do you drink tea? It’s Instagram’s fault! Stop eating gluten!” etc., etc.
“I have hormonal imbalances that cause my skin to sometimes get cystic acne.”
“You should wash your face with . . .”
“No, I said it was my hormo—”
“Have you tried glycolic acid?”
Anyone with legit acne will tell you that yes, we’ve tried everything. I’m an expert. I don’t have any questions. I know exactly what every damn acid does and doesn’t do, which one requires you to wear sunscreen after, exactly how long a mask should be left on (sheet and clay), and I never, ever, ever need to hear from anyone about any new serum. All the serums already exist; they’re just selling you more of the same garbage!
A guy once stayed over at my apartment and came out of the bathroom, mouth agape.
“Are all those products just for you? I just have soap!” he exclaimed in astonishment, as if he had walked into the sand tiger from Aladdin, never seeing such wonders before in his life.
Yes, I have at least five but no more than 10 toners, face washes, face scrubs, special face scrubbers, peels, masks, creams, gels, tonics, and exfoliators. I wouldn’t call myself a hobbyist, but I certainly spend more time than I’d like trying to figure out how to clear up my skin. In fact, almost all of my 11:11s and 12:34s have been spent wishing for clearer skin, longer eyelashes, and less cellulite. Sorry, world peace, someone else is gonna have to be less selfish with their wishes.
Body positivity has yet to reach out to those of us with pustules and pimples. Even with the number of social media accounts dedicated to high-def macro lenses filled with dermatologists squeezing and prodding the afflicted acne-sufferers for bigger, darker, grosser puss balls, the people suffering haven’t been humanized. It’s a new-age freak show with captions like “little zit, big squirt” and “removal of a 25-year-old blackhead.”
While having acne hasn’t ever been told to me directly as a reason someone didn’t want to date me or be my friend, it certainly ruined my self-esteem for years. Especially when the acne was on my back and chest as a teenager and I felt like I was inherently gross. The amount I loved myself truly increased every day my skin was slightly less bumpy than the day before. Even now, when I get a rogue forehead zit, I question if I should go out for fear of being photographed and having the shallow pits of hell on the internet feast on my misfortune.
But I’m also well-adjusted enough to know that everybody gets acne, at some point, and sometimes if you are blessed with baby-ass skin in high school, you’re not immune to a battle with your skin later in life. The number of friends I envied at age 15 for being walking magazine covers, Photoshopped by God for our eyes’ consumption, ended up prematurely wrinkled, with rosacea, excess hair, and yes, sometimes a big fat zit in their twenties and thirties. There’s no amount of water you can drink that is going to solve for your hormones changing and surging and depleting. There’s no snake oil you can sell people who know the truth.
And honestly, I wish the only bad thing about me was my bad skin. That would be a pretty solid legacy, to be honest.
Akilah Hughes is the author of Obviously: Stories From My Timeline (from which this essay is excerpted), and co-host of Crooked Media's What A Day podcast.