Reclaiming the power (and pain) our complexion has on us
“Ewww! Your epidermis is showing!” I can still see those three saucy girls approaching me and every other vocabulary-challenged kid on the blacktop during elementary school recess. Such good actresses they were, each one wrinkling up her face in disgust to sell their ruse and confuse us more.
“Epidermis” was such a big word back then. You could tell that few of us knew what it meant. In a panic, we’d wipe underneath our noses, scan our bodies for a wardrobe malfunction, and check our flies in horror as our three accusers erupted into laughter—leaving us, once again, clueless of what they were talking about.
Imagine how relieved we were when we learned that they were merely referring to our skin. To compensate for our stupidity, we’d laugh along like we were in on the joke the whole time. Yeah, good one. Not.
Yes, our epidermis is showing. It never stops. The fact that it’s perpetually on display for the whole world to see hasn’t been an easy ride for me. Somewhere from childhood into my teen years, our body’s largest organ quickly became my biggest obsession.
And I’m not alone.
The media tells us that creamy, flawless skin is more desirable than blemished complexions; younger, dewy skin is coveted over age spots and frown lines. Fair-skinned girls need to tan to achieve that “healthy glow.” Darker skin shows off our contours and muscles better, but don’t go too dark or you’ll be less desirable. Lighter skin is better, but not too white or you’ll be perceived as pasty.
It’s all a jumbled mess of mixed messages, conveying that our skin isn’t good enough. That we’re not good enough. Why must there be something we need to change about ourselves? More importantly, why does it tend to be directed at women?
Growing up, I was raised that clear skin was a sign of good hygiene and that preventing acne was something within my control. This notion was endorsed by the beauty magazines I read and what I saw on TV, as well as from my parents. Well, if that were true, my skin would have been the envy of all. But no brand of daily cleanser, toner, facial scrub, peel, or mask could save me from the involuntary explosions happening on my face and body during my teen years and into college. No acne cream or five-step process was going to save face. Especially mine.
My parents were critical when it came to my skin. While appearances mattered greatly to them, they didn’t exactly offer up solutions. So, I got creative and called upon the great shroud to help me—my hair. Soon, however, I learned that covering my forehead with bangs or styling my layers toward my face only created more oil deposits and heinous breakouts.
My skin was excruciatingly bad for a while.
Once in junior high, I was out sick for a few days with a stomach bug. The day I returned to school, my 7th grade English teacher while handing back our papers stopped next to my desk and asked if I’d had the chicken pox. I was mortified. Everyone had heard her. The guy seated in front of me—his ears actually twitched.
I shook my head slowly, trying not to cry. She said nothing more, aside from her brows shooting up in disapproval. She then continued down the aisle like she hadn’t just stabbed me.
I felt ugly. Ashamed. Most of all during those years, I felt trapped by my own skin.
The power that one tiny pimple or a whole colony of them have on our lives can be astounding. Our self-confidence can be taken down for days from one untimely breakout. Size doesn’t matter when it comes to zits because they all feel like blinking bullseyes on our face. One is all you need to feel less than.
So why do we allow our outer layer so much power? Are we being fair to ourselves when breakouts can and will just sort of happen?
Yes, we can have a stellar diet—avoid dairy, chocolate, and fried food. We can faithfully attend to the changing needs of our skin by using non-comedogenic treatments and cosmetics. There’s still no guarantee you’ll wake to face the day with clear skin.
We tell ourselves excuses: I must be getting my period or It must be stress. Does the reason really matter when there’s not much we can actually do?
All acne, no matter how mild, can affect our body image. This seems to be more magnified for women because we’re expected to be flawless compared to our male counterparts. Guys can have razor burn, uneven skin tone, and blackheads, and somehow that’s all okay. More manly, even. Wait, what? That’s so not right.
As a teen, I used to spend hours in front of a mirror examining my skin and all its imperfections. I’d pick and squeeze and ultimately feel worse about myself. Scrutinizing my skin only brought on more pain and self-doubt. I wish back then I hadn’t let it rule me. I wish I’d simply looked in my eyes and said: You’re beautiful, no matter what. Now go kick some ass.
Far too often, I let acne hold me back. I’d turn my head away as I passed a cute guy in the hallway at school when I should have raised it high. I’d sit out on the side of the pool with a t-shirt over my bathing suit when I should have yelled “cannonball” and not cared what anyone else thought.
Though today my breakouts aren’t as severe, the emotional scars and shame they left on me are still very real. I have to say that on the surface, I’ve made more peace with my skin. I take great care of it and treat it gently. For all I’ve put it through, it’s been pretty good to me.
Now when I wake to find an untimely surprise in my bathroom mirror, I say:
Hello, zit. Enjoy your stay. Cause I’m not going to let you ruin what I’m meant to do today. Now go kick some ass.
Heather Cumiskey is an award-winning young adult author. Her first book, I Like You Like This, received the 2017 Moonbeam Children’s Book Bronze Award and was a Finalist in both the 2017 USA Best Book Awards and 2018 International Book Awards. Its sequel: I Love You Like That publishes August 20, 2019. She lives in Maryland with her husband and three sons.
Catch up with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, or at HeatherCumiskey.com.