Age thirteen hit me in a real bad way. I know we all talk about puberty like it was a slow crawl through a war zone, but I’ll gladly show you how much my scars resemble the little pits where the bombs dropped. You should have seen me in 2003, 5’7″ of righteous anger in a Catholic school uniform and striped knee socks. What gives, human biology? I couldn’t believe how hard I’d been cheated. My classmates were coming out of puberty with proper boobs that could fit into a bra, and all I’d gotten was this face, back, and chest of flaming red sores. My aunt said my body was a garden waiting for its blossoms, but I was pretty sure that somewhere along the way, we’d developed an insect problem.
My doctor said it would go away eventually. Are you washing your face, she wanted to know. Maybe it’s because you’re not washing your face well enough. Besides, you’ll outgrow it. Everyone your age has acne, but it goes away by their twenties.
My twenties? Were they for real? I couldn’t wait that long to look like a normal person. How was I going to go out in public? How was I going to get a boyfriend? The eighth grade boys ignored me or made fun of me. Were they suggesting that this was not an isolated incident, but to be an ongoing pattern in my young adulthood? I already hated and feared the rest of my weird, newly hairy body. Did they honestly expect me to put up with this shit for at least seven years?
Since no one was offering a medical solution, I decided I’d have to handle it myself. The other girls had started wearing makeup, so I figured that I should start, too. I mean, I’d already shaved my legs like a grown-up. Sort of. Okay, so I shaved them once. And okay, fine, it was only one part of my left calf, but then I nicked myself and touched the blade with my finger and it made my skin into these weird fish gill things and I had a Grade A freakout.
I asked my mom to use her makeup. And by makeup, I mean my mom’s liquid foundation. My mom is the kind of woman who doesn’t like or need makeup, so foundation was my only option. That’s one of the reasons why, to this day, I do not know the difference between eyeshadow and blush and have confused the purpose of the two on the few occasions I ever used the stuff.
My mom didn’t understand why I wanted to use makeup when I’d never shown any interest in the past, but I was determined that these big angry sores on my face were about to make a swift exit. I didn’t wear eyeliner until three years later, but you can bet your bippy I didn’t leave the house unless it was in a layer of caked-on Cover Girl liquid foundation in shade 02. I figured I was hideous without it. If I had to go out without makeup, I felt like a walking monster. As if we’re not already so overly conscious and terrified of our bodies as preteens, I was convinced that I needed to put a bag over my head to spare passersby the horror that was my facade.
I became an expert in the application of liquid foundation, and then I graduated to powder foundation. With powder foundation, I was bright orange, but suddenly being an inhuman shade was a great distraction from the distress of my acne. As you can probably guess, the foundation was actually aggravating the acne, but I figured if I just slapped more on, no one would be able to tell. And what other people could tell or not tell was the real problem for me; my own health was never a concern I registered, but a stranger’s perception of my appearance and thus my attractiveness was the kind of thing that my preteen brain determined to be a do or die situation.
The years passed, and the acne did not improve. In fact, it got decidedly worse, and I was ready to tear off my own dermis with my fingernails if it came to it. I didn’t know desperation until I had shitty skin. I went to three different dermatologists. I tried Clearasil, Neutrogena, and anything you could buy from a stand in the mall that promised teenage happiness. I tanned. I hid from the sun. I tried prescription cleansers. I tried over-the-counter lotions. I tried prescription lotions. I tried weird treatments with lights. I tried sitting under the doctor’s horrific little tool that gouged out all my pores and made me swear that if I did not survive the treatment, I would come back as a ghost and malevolently haunt their dermatology office for all eternity. I tried peels, topical appliques, special face washes, and a chemical situation that was akin to an acid bath. But I would have done anything, I would have given anything. Hundreds of dollars for this treatment? I’ll make the sacrifice. Side effects include nausea, diarrhea, and depression? Honey, I’m already depressed. Have you seen my face lately? When the doctor said that such and such a treatment was linked to health problems later in life, I didn’t even blink. I’ll hit 50 and keel over? Fine, I don’t care, get rid of these fucking pimples. I would have committed unspeakable crimes to rid myself of my acne. Unspeakable.
I was on the forums, and I read the books. When people made lists of the foods that might cause acne, I stopped eating them. Or I’d eat them all at once one night of the week, and then not at all the rest of the time, and feel very smug because I thought I’d cheated the system. By the way, never tell a teenage girl what she can and cannot eat to achieve a certain kind of appearance. I know firsthand what kind of demons start forming in her head, and those demons have no problem setting up house.
My dermatologist sent me to a gynecologist who put me on birth control. Those boobs I’d given up on waiting for? They showed up, along with five pounds in eight days and me crying in public at small children. My biggest issue has always been feeling like I don’t have control, and this was a few months of no control over anything – my weight, my emotions, my anxiety, my whole body. I got the heck off birth control, which I guess is a good thing, since the Yaz I was on is now under fire for multiple major health concerns that were not forewarned back when they were handing it out like candy. It was overprescribed in the early 2000s as a miracle drug that was going to save us all from PMS and bad acne, but now it’s a lawyer’s dream, linked with strokes and blood clots in the lungs, and said to be responsible for the deaths of 23 young women. But you know what? If you had told me the health risks when I was prescribed it at age fifteen, I still would have taken it. Because I was fifteen years old, and I couldn’t care less about the dangerous, even fatal side effects when there was the tiniest sliver of hope that I had a shot at clear skin.
By the time I was eighteen, doctors determined that my acne was undoubtedly hormonal. Except unlike everyone else who complained about a “PMS breakout” that was a single whitehead in an unnoticeable place, I had a 24/7 puss party north of my boobs. Heck, I was getting it on my upper arms by this point. My arms! How do you get acne on your arms? The chest was bad enough, but my arms? I’d lost faith in outgrowing this a long time ago, but this was a curveball I could not stomach.
You know that cystic acne that hurts like heck and leaves a little purple sac of nasty long after it’s died? That’s my brand of acne, right there. The gross and miserable kind, the kind you would take a blowtorch to if you hadn’t already calculated that the burn scars would technically be worse than the current problem. One time, my dermatologist even said that my acne was not acne at all, but a lingering case of MRSA that I’d contracted when I was nineteen. Then she prescribed me a daily round of strong antibiotics that all but killed my ability to eat anything but starchy foods. My digestive system fought a good fight for a while, but eventually it had no choice but to surrender. My other doctor had just about diagnosed me with IBS, until she glanced at my listed current medications and did a double take. One thing I can confidently say I gained from this ordeal was a complete lack of faith in the medical community’s ability to consistently treat bad skin. We can make fake sperm and grow ears out of mice, but god forbid you have pimples, honey.
Accutane was brought up by doctors more than once, but it’s the one thing I turned down. Desperation is real, but everyone has their breaking point. My breaking point was Accutane. I’d heard horror stories, and I’d finally had enough shit happen to me where my mortality was a reality that I would face with my big girl briefs on, thank you. By this point, I’d also moved into a place in my gender expression and sexuality where my attitude towards the space on my body formerly known as a functioning human face was rapidly changing. I didn’t know if I was allowed to wear foundation now that I was identifying as butch. I know, looking back it’s the silliest and saddest thing in the world, but at the time, it was a fact I did not question. I couldn’t cover up my acne anymore. I couldn’t use that foundation, and if I did, I felt pretty darn uncomfortable with it. I was afraid it would somehow negate my fledgling identity, which was still a little sticky and shaky in its newness, and I knew a poke at just the right angle could knock the whole shebang over.
One time in college I was hanging out with a girl I really liked, and she said she thought my acne was really cute. She said it looked boyish, which she knew I was going for and which I know she found attractive. We kissed a few weeks later and I didn’t even panic when her hand brushed my face. A year later and I got an anonymous Tumblr message along the same lines. I know we’re not supposed to put too much stock in anonymous Tumblr messages or complete mental breakdowns will follow, but it really stood out to me.
I still think about what it means to be a masculine queer person, how my standards of beauty are very different from the experience I had growing up as a feminine girl who was expected to be feminine. And if I have a bad day and need to wear a little cover-up, I’ve learned that it’s not even a remote threat to who I am or how people perceive me. I know butches who wear more make-up than some femmes, and their identity isn’t in jeopardy anymore than mine is or has ever been. One of the most freeing elements in my struggle with acne was learning how queerness works to subvert mainstream beauty standards and expectations for appearance, and accepting and fueling that subversion in myself. Being queer makes me confident in myself, and that self includes a lifetime of acne.
For such a long time, I’d never thought of my acne as anything but a huge terrifying problem. It had made me see myself as lesser-than for so many years that I’d let the very fact of it be a threat to my entire identity. I thought I’d have to choose between managing my acne and being confident in who I was, because that had been my only reality since I was still a kid. I never thought I’d get to the point where my own self-cultivated happiness would outweigh the necessity of hiding my face from the world.
When I was twenty-one, I started seeing a holistic therapist in conjunction with an acupuncturist. It was the first time I’d foregone all the chemical stuff and opted for an all-natural approach. I didn’t end up continuing with acupuncture because I get pretty anxious around needles, even if they’re long and tiny and don’t hurt, but I kept going to the therapist. She told me to get myself Vitamin A and zinc supplements, and hang in there. I took six Vitamin A supplements and 2 zinc supplements after dinner, and kept it up. I did not break the regiment. And two months later, for the first time since I was thirteen years old, my acne started to clear up. I started eating healthier. I drank water like my life depended on it, which I suppose it technically does. Despite the fact that I couldn’t even believe this last ditch effort could ever work, it did. Some of the scars were even repairing themselves. I wasn’t sure which deity I was supposed to start sacrificing to, but a miracle had surely taken place on my body.
I will admit that it hasn’t been a straight shot to the good life. I will never be one of those people who has clear skin without having to work for it, and I have yet to see my face without at least one active pimple accompanying still-visible scars. Sometimes I miss a supplement or I eat something that sets me off, and even just the telltale redness and pain can put me back in a panicky teenage mode. Certain activities seem to make it worse, which my therapist says is a result of spurts in testosterone. Two weeks ago, I ruptured an ovarian cyst and my period went skippedy-do-da for the first time in ages. As a result, my acne came back with a raging agenda, hitting me extra hard like it was trying to make up for lost time. The cysts are so sore that it stings to have my head on a pillow at night, and my fingers are getting that familiar itch to scratch the darn things off.
The acne doesn’t get to win, though. I’m out in public, right this very second, and there’s not a lick of make-up on these cheeks. I looked at myself in the mirror and decided I was going to put on an outfit that made me feel really hot, and I was going to drive myself to that Starbucks and park my behind in a well-trafficked place no matter how much my heart was racing. And you know what? More than one girl straight up checked me out today, and it felt pretty darn validating. Heck, it felt good. I just about tingled all over, except the good tingle, not that horrible tingle after they’ve just done a chemical peel and you’re crying in front of a nurse about how you always feel so irreparably ugly. I don’t feel ugly anymore, at least not all the time. Sometimes I feel downright attractive as far as people go, which is something that preteen and teen me never thought was possible. I remember being sixteen or seventeen and thinking very firmly that if anybody ever loved me, they’d have to overlook my acne first. I wish I could sit down with preteen me and shake out my shoulders a little bit, remind myself that I am worth it in a lot of other ways, and even if the acne doesn’t ever really go away, it doesn’t have to define me. I’ve got better things to call myself, after all.