It started the summer that I turned twelve. It started on my face, just a few red bumps across the bridge of my nose. I poked at them and they sort of hurt. At first I wondered if the bumps were a sort of rash or allergic reaction, but after a week or so I realized what they were. Zits.
I wasn’t too bothered by them in the beginning, really. In fact, I was sort of excited, because they were yet another sign that I was almost a teenager. On my cousin they’d looked strangely tough and grown up, and I hope that they would give me the same air of hardboiled adolescence. Mostly I just thought that they were normal, and that I would eventually grow out of them.
As the summer progressed, though, the bumps spread across my face, down my neck and over my back and chest. Huge patches of skin were angry and red; whiteheads started to appear, and I was mortified by the fact that I had to walk around with what seemed like enormous pus-filled lumps on my face.
I was even more mortified when my father pulled me aside and said that he’d noticed that I had blemishes and offered to send me to the doctor about them. In retrospect, I know that this was because he’d been teased as a teenager because of his skin, but at the time I just wanted the floor to open up and swallow me whole, then maybe regurgitate me in ten years’ time as a gorgeous twenty-something with a flawless complexion.
Our family doctor referred me to a dermatologist, whose treatments were the closest thing to torture that I’ve ever experienced. I would lie on a table under a magnifying glass with an enormous, burning light on it, and he would peer through the glass at my face. He had a funny metal instrument with a tiny sharp hoop at one end, and he would use that to pop my pimples. The light hurt my eyes, but closing them and having every fresh flash of pain come as a surprise was somehow worse. If I looked like I might start crying, he would tell me harshly that if I cried I would fill the open wounds with bacteria. So I would lie there, blood and pus running down my faces and my head aching from the bright light, trying desperately not to cry.
Once the doctor was finished shredding my skin, he would pour iodine over my face. The burning seemed unbearable, except that I had to sit there and bear it. As I waited for the stinging to subside, the doctor, his voice oozing condescension, would say,
“There now. That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
Afterwards they would put goggles on me stick me in a sort of tanning booth, because ultraviolet light was supposed to cure acne.
I only went to a handful of these treatments – five, maybe ten at the outside. Eventually I just refused to go back. I figured that being a social pariah was less painful than having my face cut open and doused with what felt like acid on a bi-weekly basis.
Just to be clear, I really was a social pariah that year. And the year after. And the year after that, right up until the end of high school. Some of the cruelty was fairly subtle – innocent-seeming questions about how often I washed my face, or wonderings aloud about how much chocolate I must eat, with pointed glances at my waist-band. Most of the jokes about my skin were openly mean, and the kids who made them faced few consequences. One girl said that it was no wonder that no one wanted to kiss me, because what if one my zits popped in the mouth of the boy unlucky enough to be making out with me? A boy in my class said that I was lucky because I didn’t have to spend money on whiteout; if I ever made a mistake I could just pop one of my zits and use the pus to correct what I’d written. Both of these remarks were made in front of teachers; in both cases the teachers just laughed along with everyone else.
I tried everything – creams that made my skin even more greasy, gels that burned when applied them, pills that made me feel queasy and light-headed for hours after I took them. I tried caking foundation an inch thick onto my skin, because it was easier to be teased for wearing too much makeup than for being Medusa’s twin sister. I tried lying for hours in the sun, suffering sunburn after sunburn, because I thought that there really might be something to that ultraviolet light idea.
Mostly I just tried pretending that it wasn’t happening.
When little kids would ask me what was wrong with my face and if I was contagious, I would just smile like they’d said something incredibly adorable. When people at school said mean things, I would laugh harder than everyone just to prove that I could take a joke. When adults gave me unasked-for advice, I would pretend that this didn’t translate in my head to, you are the ugliest person in the world.
Because that was what I felt like: the ugliest person in the world. When boys were nice to me or complimented me or wanted to date me, I wondered what the catch was. Did they want me to do their English homework or introduce them to my cute friend? Would they go back to their friends and laugh about me later? Was someone recording our conversation, like on candid camera?
It never occurred to me that anyone might ever want to touch me; I didn’t even want to touch me.
Sometimes I’m still surprised that people can hug me or kiss me or place their hand on my face without recoiling in horror. Because, as much as my skin has cleared since I was a teenager, it’s still what is politely referred to as acne-prone. I still get those angry red bumps; I still wear more makeup than I probably should. It’s like a bad joke – I used to think that my acne would disappear once I was a grownup, but now I just get zits on my wrinkles.
I guess the point that I want to drive home here is that I really feel like my skin will never be good, and that is fucked up. Why do we have to refer to acne as “problem skin” or “bad skin”? My skin isn’t bad or a problem; it’s just my skin, and I’m fucking tired of being made to feel like I should be ashamed of it. I’m sick of the fact that the only time I ever see someone in the media with acne, they’re there to tell me how not to have acne.
I can turn on my television and see people from all different kinds of ethnic backgrounds. I can find television shows with characters from all the major religions; I can find shows with characters of several different sexual orientations. There are television shows with trans characters. There are television shows with disabled characters.
There are never any people on my television or in magazines or even in cute, independent, deliberately not-Hollwood movies who look like me, with angry red skin and patches of whiteheads and that greasy sheen that you get because the
Exxon Valdez has crashed on your face your oil glands are working overtime. I just want to see one person who doesn’t have beautiful, flawless skin because at thirty one I’m so fucking tired of hating my body. I just want to feel normal.
I just want to stop flinching every time someone leans in to hug me. I don’t really feel like that’s a lot to ask.