If you’re remotely into fashion or styling, it’s pretty easy to know when two pieces don’t look great together. Sometimes, you can squint just enough to see the intention behind the choices — I ALWAYS applaud bravery (especially my own, even when I fail at it) — but ten times to one, a bad combo is a bad combo. Like ice-cream and stewed liver, coffee and Guinness (wait, this sounds interesting), apple-pie and bacon (hmm, I shouldn’t write when I’m hungry *crazy combo-eater alert*), it turns out that “self-love and acne” is also a very jarring combination.
It didn’t start that way. I’m thirty-five years old. Two years ago, I decided it was time to kick the birth-control-pill-bucket and end my immediate nausea every time my daily reminder went off. I knew that, after over a decade of controlled periods, acne was a significant consequence of ending this medicated cycle. I knew that because a few years before, I had tried to come off, and my face became the littering ground of an anti-environmental acne squad. Like the vain coward I was, I ran right back on the pill and resigned myself to continuing to have the beautiful, clear skin of my youth (what a sacrifice). When my nausea began in 2016, however, I knew those days were numbered. By mid-2017, taking the pill became the very worst part of every single day. I was finally done. It was time to face the thunder, and I promised myself there would be no turning back no matter how bad this got. Sounds brave? Ha. I certainly began with that intent. I was determined to love myself, by loving my face, no matter what. #SelfLove, right? Failure.
First came the cascade of the Littles… a lovely “rash” of tiny bumps that riddled my forehead and made sunlight my worst nightmare (especially for selfies 🙋🏽♀️🤳🏽). But I could stay in the shadows enough for it to not show that much, and the rest of my face was pretty clear. I remember thinking, while I hated the tinnie bump brigade, that if this was the worst of it, I was going to be A-OKAY! It had been eight months since I stopped the pill, after all.
Either way, technically speaking, it wasn’t THAT bad: not when there were apps like Facetune to smoothen sunshine shots into my skin’s former glory. I should disclaim at this point that through this process, I discovered I had serious attachment issues (and I won’t beat myself up for that) — I did not see my face as it was, but rather as it once was and what it could be again. How did this manifest? Step One: go nowhere without Step Two. Step Two: great makeup (yes, I love face-art). Step Three: if I decide to post a photo, use epic filters. TA-DA: I still have the skin that I was once in — in a sense. It wasn’t vanity (okay, it wasn’t ALL vanity). There were also positive reinforcement and anti-depression strategies involved. The truth is, this was my first time dealing with acne (I can’t even recall having pimples in my teenage years). I was scared, mortified really, of what was happening to me. Even the tiny bumps felt weird to see. Thus, my raw face and photos were drowned in visual “affirmations” of a time gone and, hopefully, a time soon to come.
Everything I read told me it would be a few months to a year before my skin settled and my hormones balanced out. I was counting down. I drank water as I generally did (religiously and in large amounts), and I always removed my makeup and washed my face with solid cleansers. I waited, and stared, and waited, and stared, and waited some more for the bumpy splash to move on. It didn’t. Instead, one year after stopping the pill, I was dealing with whiteheads galore as I gave up my spot in the Land of the Littles (bumps) and took up residence in PimpleLand.
I decided that my stress level was to blame and sort to get it under control (you know, stress from a new startup, writing my first fantasy trilogy, etc.). Within a few months, I was exercising regularly, eating well, and losing weight. I eventually got to the weight range of my late teens and twenties, and I was very proud of this achievement. I also meditated and did yoga, finding great balance once again. It was exciting to see my body fitting into the clothes from “that bag” in the back of the wardrobe … you know, the bag with the outfits you hope would one day fit again but don’t want to see them until they do because you would feel a type of way? Yeah, every single piece in THAT bag fit. And as they did, my face went from PimpleLand to CysticHell.
I didn’t know adult acne was a thing until I had the skin of a hormonal teenager in a grownup body. Suddenly, I was ending 2018 with the weight-loss achievement I had longed for, but with a face that I was depressed to look at in the mirror. I couldn’t even prop my head in my hands without yelling out in pain, thanks to those underlying cystic suckers from Hades. One and a half years after my decision to stop the pill, I was convinced that clear skin may not be in my future again.
Self-love feels impossible when you don’t love what you’re seeing.
I couldn’t pretend that my skin was loveable to me. Yet, I was finally ready to face it and fight. And there was something about that fact — that I could own this hell and be honest about it — that made me feel a new kind of self-love. At that moment, I anchored to loving the woman I was becoming. I posted about it to my IG fam, bare-faced and brazen, and I decided that my superbly crappy skin had a story worth sharing.
There is something special that happens when you accept where you’re at while you simultaneously reject it. It is almost as if you have found the exact point where the present takes place — the past is sealed in time, and the future is yours to create. I could own the acne without knowing if it would ever leave me be, and I could take up arms with a community of people and fight it. The outpouring of messages that I got, filled with empathy and advice from fellow-sufferers and friends, helped me to understand that the only power this had over me was what I gave it. Does this mean I suddenly became a warrior for bare-faced, unfiltered photos with proud hashtags of #ILoveMeWithAcne? Nope. I applaud anyone who does this, but I am still unapologetically into my makeup and cool filters. Why? That’s just what I like. I can post a bare photo today and a made-up one tomorrow because I permitted myself a long time ago to be free to choose. Does that make me less “authentic” than the unfiltered warriors? Nope. At every moment, I am true to ME and MY desires, and that includes the times that I want to see an unrealistic, cartoon-smooth version of myself.
So, how does this winding story end? Thankfully, with semi-smooth, healing skin. I had decided to spend the first six months of 2019 trying different approaches. If those failed, I figured that I would then seek medical advice. I tested everything from all-natural products (tea tree oil et al.), to acne tablets (for a month — I gave up on these due to no great improvement AND the fact that I would be replacing one pill with another), to tons of creams and overnight skincare. I should caution, before saying what worked for me, that many of the approaches that failed for me worked fabulously for others. This is an individual journey, and you can’t treat your skin like a one-size-fits-all. I also want to disclaim that I cannot medically prove that my solutions are what worked — I am a sample size of one, and assuming such a thing would be the very opposite of the scientific method. I am only sharing my experience.
What worked for ME:
In May 2019, I walked into a pharmacy chain and randomly picked up two items. One was a refrigerated bottle of lavender water kefir (non-dairy probiotics), and the other was a Clearasil 5-in-1 cream (I have no affiliation with any of these products). I went home and started both that very day. I sipped the kefir for about five days (as taking too much at once can cause uncomfortable gas). I figured that my gut had a severe imbalance, and probiotics could help. I also started using the cream two times a day, all over my face. Within a couple of weeks, I noticed that I hadn’t had another reoccurrence of the cystic acne, and for the first time in [what felt like] forever, I felt hopeful. I decided to do a second round of the water kefir (I randomly tried another brand this time) and used the same five-day schedule. Within a month of my first attempt at both of those, all of my cystic acne stopped, and just the surface pimples remained (buh-bye CysticHell and hi PimpleLand — NEVER thought I would be happy to see you again).
Then, my skin started clearing. The number of pimples rapidly decreased, and the surface area of clear skin increased. I didn’t want to believe it. I was scared to, after so many tries (and failures) with other methods. I decided to give it three natural period cycles to be SURE that this was working (because what if it was just a good skin time of the month). My face only got better, and while there were still a few very minor breakouts around my period, they were both manageable and temporary. I should mention that I used a great acne facewash for all of the six months, and an aloe vera toner as well (these didn’t make much of a difference to stop the breakouts, but I am sure they contributed to the upkeep). My unscientific conclusion is this: attacking this simultaneously on the inside (water kefir probiotics) and the outside (the 5-in-1 cream) gave me an edge over the acne that I was able to capitalize on using the cream thereafter.
There is still a bit of healing left, but the contrast was so extreme, I knew I needed to share it. I had also promised some of the readers of my first IG post that if I had found a solution, I would let them know. I initially felt worried to do it, because what if it all came back and one month later I was in CysticHell again? But I am not interested in feeding my inner coward (at least in this instance — LOL). I shared it on IG when I finally believed that this was really happening, and felt inclined to give more details here in case someone out there needs a bit of hope.
Self-love under these conditions is a grueling process. There are no words for the physical and emotional turmoil that many failed attempts at solving acne can have on the human psyche. I know others who have faced these conditions for years and even decades, and I can’t help but wonder how they feel when people (including myself) tout SELF-LOVE messages in the midst of their battles. I want to be clear and say that there was never a moment in this that I loved the skin that I was in, and I have come to believe that doing so is NOT self-love.
Self-love isn’t fooling yourself into thinking that the things you don’t like, or hate, about yourself should feel lovable.
I don’t like certain shades of green in clothes, and I don’t believe that there will ever be a day that I will. Does this mean I am a color-hater? Certainly not. But forcing myself or pretending to love those icky greens also does not make me a color-lover. That is not, and will never be, a requirement of color-love. I can enjoy some shades and despise others, and still be someone who loves color in general. The same goes for food (hi, fellow food lovers 👋🏽) — being a food lover doesn’t mean I love every single type of food there is. I don’t mean to belabor the point, but I think we treat the concept of self-love like religious fanaticism. We assume it is sinful to allow ourselves to feel anything less than total love for every single thing about us, and we bury our heads in the sand when there is something we don’t naturally like. I’ve put on the #selflove plaster more times than I can count, only to find myself still subconsciously hating things, and then resenting myself when I realized. It is a vicious cycle, and it can only end if we understand the purpose of disliking or even hating things about ourselves.
I propose that the things we don’t like are what can push us to make positive changes and become more progressive as humans.
These things are what enable us to try, and try again, and try our very best to overcome the undesirable. So perhaps this is what self-love really is, or maybe what it now is to me:
To love myself enough to keep trying to change the things I hate.
But when it comes to the fad: self-love will never go with my acne.