“What part of your body would you change if you could?” my friend asked during one of our discussions about beauty. My answer immediately came to mind, given the amount of times my mom had told me: Serena, you look pretty good now; this is the last thing you have to try to fix.
I have had the same answer to that question since puberty, and it has been a consistent part of my daily life for the past 8 years. And yet, I still felt uncertain about sharing it, because I have always found acne to be a difficult issue to relate to.
My relationship with acne began in middle school. I knew that getting pimples was something that happened to most teenagers. As a result, I didn’t think much of it after I got my first, or my twentieth, pimple. On the other hand, my mother, who had gone through a similar process at my age, became concerned. She wanted to prevent scarring, so she took me to a dermatologist early on.
I remember always going in and feeling uncomfortable. You might criticize the doctors for making me feel this way, but it was the nature of their job. They would look at my face and ask some questions before telling me something along the lines of, you have acne and it’s not going to go away.
Just look at your mom, they would say. If genes were any indicator, my mom’s 20 year old scars would be my future.
These visits always left me emotionally and mentally exhausted. I had to think about all the various medications that could prevent pimples from forming or treat them after their development. I also wondered if my peers around me saw my face and regarded me as the doctors did — a girl who needs a lot of work.
I’m eternally grateful for the amount of support my mother has offered me. She understood the extent to which my acne would affect my self esteem and willingly spent time and money on countless products and consultations. As someone who has tried more than ten different skin care routines, complete with over 30 products throughout the years, I can’t imagine how I could have gotten by without the willing financial support of my parents.
One of the more costly treatments that I received were regular facials. I remember lying down during my first one, not sure what to expect. As the aesthetician opened up my pores by filling my face with steam, she told me to close my eyes and handed me stress balls for the pain.
In the movies, facials are always portrayed as relaxing activities that people can purchase for exorbitant amounts of money. But my experience at thirteen involved very painful extractions, which are processes that involve clearing out clogged pores of excess sebum and dead skin cells. It feels similar to popping a particularly large pimple, but after 30 minutes, it becomes overwhelming, and I remember crying from how much it hurt.
After this ordeal, the aesthetician applied a soothing mask, but I was left with extremely red swelling all over my face. My mother, who had gone through the same process, told me after my first time that she usually did not leave the house for a couple of days after receiving each facial.
In college, I have had to abandon the practice of getting facials, but this pain used to be my reality every three weeks in high school. Luckily, my skin has improved over time, but I still feel self-conscious every time someone mentions how they have one pimple on his/her face. If only I could be limited to just one.
Through this process, I have begun to learn what works for me through rounds of trial and error. I know what to put on a budding pimple, and I know that skipping a day of medication could mean payback from my face in a couple weeks.
On occasion, people will notice my skin regardless of how hard I try to pretend it doesn’t exist. I remember my boyfriend telling me that he found my acne scars endearing, and all I could think of to myself was that he had noticed them. There was nothing I wanted more in that moment than to move his eyes from the flaws that are always just another thought away.
I still feel awkward when people ask me why I have to apply my medication on my face at night. It’s just pimple cream, I say, not sure how to explain that regardless of what I apply, I will get pimples somewhere, it’s just a matter of how many. When people ask why I don’t just wash my face more often or improve my skin care routine, I have to tell them that I don’t know what will work for my skin, that it’s not something I can control most of the time.
Most of all, I want to tell them that every time I look in the mirror, I am completely reminded of this flaw that always reflects back at me.
Contact Serena Lin at serenaL ‘at’ stanford.edu.