Everybody has it. Nobody talks about it. We try to cover it up. We try to medicate it. No one even notices it, though it feels so glaringly obvious if you have it. I’m not talking about depression, or anything that important. I’m talking about acne.
EW. I know, unspeakable. Shocking as it is, I have the hormones of a twenty-one-year-old. Sometimes, I even sweat. Even worse, there are days when I do the unthinkable and go to sleep without dancing through the cleanser-toner-moisturizer ritual. And the cardinal sin, there are times when I get anxious and pick at my skin, and have to run the gauntlet of walking around campus with a tiny scab on my face. Cool, now you know that I do not have perfect skin and that I am embarrassingly, disgustingly human. What gives?
This is not a column about acne, just like “Moby Dick” is not a book about whaling. It’s about the absurdity of some of the insecurities we hide. It’s about the uselessness of hiding those insecurities in the first place. It’s about the pettiness of perfectionism, put in sharp relief by the insignificance of a little pimple.
Everybody has acne. Everybody gets dumped. Everybody gets too drunk and humiliates himself. Everybody gets jealous. Everybody has high hopes and everybody encounters big disappointments. Everybody feels too fat or too skinny. Everybody has at least one love that’s left unrequited.
Nobody talks about their acne. Nobody talks about being depressed. Nobody talks about existential crises. In my experience, nobody even admits that they’re having a bad night. When I’m having an existential crisis, I couch it in terms of how “exciting” it is to be young, lonely, and not have a clue what I want to do with my life. When my roommate asks me how my night was, naturally it was “epic.” In other words, we put on cover-up.
You try to medicate it. You snatch up creams, serums, prescription pills. You cut dairy and sugar from your diet. I remember one of my girlfriends in high school going on birth control before she lost her virginity because it would cure her acne. That there is a cure may be a myth, but give me your expert opinion and I’ll follow it to the grave, so long as it promises minor improvements along the path to that one carrot dangling just a couple of feet ahead: perfection.
I know in my bones that perfection is a myth, yet I spend inordinate amounts of time and energy toning, tanning, bleaching, filing, deep conditioning and of course moisturizing. All to the same end: I have good days and bad days, some days I break out, and to an outsider I look exactly the same when I fuss over my appearance as when I don’t.
Of course, it doesn’t matter that the fussing proves futile. The fussing serves a deeper need, the need to perfect what’s outside in hopes that those improvements might reflect on the inside. You can’t tan, tone or bleach your soul, but you can compulsively floss and exfoliate.
When you get to that critical place where the fussing develops inertia of its own, tell yourself the story. You are the only person scrutinizing yourself under a microscope. You are the only one who notices the tiny imperfections that madden you, both inside and out. Give yourself a break. Take a risk and admit to a friend that you had your heart broken. Tell her if you’re afraid of all the uncertainty in your life, or if your night was actually really boring. She won’t report you to the Stanford police for failing to be superhuman.
The perfection police aren’t censoring email, at least not that we know. Send Renee your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.