I Don't Think You Understand

"I don't think you understand," I cried to my Mom. "I feel about my skin the way anorexics and bulimics feel about their bodies. Only I kind of envy them because at least they can do something about their weight. There is nothing I can do to make my skin clear up." Later in the conversation, I told her she was a bad mother for not being ashamed to be seen with me in public. Logically, I knew I was talking crazy, but my rational mind obviously was not in charge at the moment. I was throwing a temper tantrum because I wanted my acne to go away, and some achingly young part of me expected that my Mom could fix everything. She was baffled and protested that she thought I was fine, that she had not taught me about makeup and hairstyles because she thought I wasn't interested. I expected her to observe me close enough to know that this apparent disinterest was just clever camouflage. I was pretending I didn't care because it was the only way I could deal with hating my looks so much. Now I know that she was so afraid that insisting I wash my face or wear foundation would give me a complex of some kind that she erred by moving to the opposite extreme, leaving me without any information or support.

People with acne are invisible in our culture in a way that even overweight people are not. Plus size models are now depicted in ads alongside skinny ones, but you won't find any zits in popular culture. I take that back, there are exactly two places acne can be seen on TV: 1) ads for Proactiv, Clearasil and other acne products, and 2) in a comedy when a girl gets one zit the night before the prom and it's a huge tragedy. (Usually, when the camera zooms in on her face, the zit is practically invisible.) In fact, now may be the worst time in history to have bad skin. Because of Photoshop and airbrushing, we’re bombarded with images of perfect skin that is unachievable even for people without persistent breakouts. These Photoshop face fixes look natural and are even harder to spot than the waist-whittling seen so often on magazine covers and in catalogs. Even though our current vogue for thinness feels eternal and ubiquitous, there have been historical periods and cultures that encouraged weight gain and viewed plumpness as a sign of beauty (as well as relative wealth and privilege). On the other hand, clear skin is so central and universal in beauty standards that there is no culture in the world that has ever seen pocked, inflamed skin as attractive. Our reaction to seeing a pimple-covered face is visceral revulsion. This is an ingrained, evolved response that helped our ancestors avoid disease. Nowadays, we automatically think zits make someone look careless, unclean and immature. It's a stereotype without a name or an -ism.

So it's no wonder I felt the way I did about my face. After my meltdown, my Mom did her best to help. She took me to the Clinique counter and a fancy salon for makeovers, to teach me how to use concealer. She took me to the first three of the six dermatologists I've seen in my life. It took forever to find something that worked, and periodically it would stop working, or my prescription would run out, or I'd move and need a new dermatologist and in the meantime I'd be miserable.

At 27, I've discovered that acne isn't something that you necessarily grow out of, but at least I have a routine that keeps the worst of it at bay: oral antibiotic, 5% benzoyl peroxide wash, 10% benzoyl peroxide cream for occasional breakouts and four moisturizers to balance the dryness and prevent aging. I select foundation for maximum opacity, perfect shade match and easy blendability - which means I must spend more at department store makeup counters than I'd care to admit; I can't buy drugstore brands because you can't test them.

I still micro-analyze my skin. I hate its grainy texture, its oily sheen, the redness around my nose, the scars on my cheeks, my dull under eyes and the blue vein there that I'm convinced adds seven years to my age, the beginnings of wrinkles on my forehead, the hairs on my chin, the blackheads covering my nose. I spend way too much time looking closely at areas smaller than a square centimeter. But I also try to zoom out. My face is a pointillist or impressionist painting, and when I focus on these tiny flaws, I miss the whole picture. Standing back from the mirror, I can see the shape of my features, the perceptiveness of my eyes, my wry expression. I tell myself that this is all anyone else sees anyway. Usually I believe it.

Someday soon though, I'll be ready to have a baby and I will have to stop taking the antibiotic. I just hope the baby hormones and prenatal vitamins do good things for my skin, because I'm not sure I'll be able to handle being a giant beach-ball-shaped person AND being covered in deep, painful whiteheads. I trust that I'm much more mature now than I was when I blew up at my Mom, but the fact that I would react to the pain better now doesn't mean I wouldn't feel it.

My future daughter will have bad acne genes on both sides to deal with. I hope that by the time she's a teenager there will be cure for acne, though I know how superficial that sounds when compared to the need for a cure for cancer and diabetes. I hope I can watch her more closely than my Mom watched me and know exactly what her interest or disinterest in self-enhancement means. I hope when I bring up the topic, my anxiety doesn't rub off on her. The best way to make sure that happens is simply for me not to be anxious. Maybe the imperative to help my eventual daughter love her face as much as I will is what will finally lead me to accept my own.