Living with adult acne is shitty enough. Shaming me for 'hiding' isn't liberating – it's bullshit
I’m obsessed with my own face. Before I sat down to write this article, I spent over ten minutes peering at my cheeks, my chin, my jaw in the bathroom mirror. I take pictures of it every day from three different angles, before digitally stitching them together into a collage which I save in a folder on my phone named ‘Progress’. I probably think about my face at least once every couple of hours, if not more.
And that sounds grossly vain, but there’s pretty much no way to talk about the way adult acne can swallow up huge chunks of a day, how it can demolish a person’s self esteem, rationality and social life without sounding a bit frivolous to the average listener. Unless you suffer from adult acne, you might forget it even exists – let alone that it’s a burden 40-55% of adults are reportedly bearing. You most definitely won’t have considered that over a third of those people suffer from some sort of depression or suicidal thoughts due to the condition of their own face.
As a teenager I had enviably smooth, freckled skin which I abused with multicoloured sins from an expanding make-up collection; mosaics of eyeshadows in mirrored palettes, pots of glitter, violet eyeliners. I learned to base my self esteem on the compliments I received for my experimentations. Though my parents were often exasperated, my teachers disapproving and my pillowslips stained, never once was I punished by my lovely forgiving skin. No, no – that came later.
When I was 19, shit hit the dermatological fan. A couple of inoffensive bumps evolved into a fully-fledged breakout, and the break-out turned into never-ending cycles of volcanic constellations. The harder I tried to control it, the harder my face revolted. In desperation, I abstained from dairy, peanuts, wheat, sugar, caffeine; I begged for expensive skincare and concealers for birthday presents; I grew a swooshy blanket of hair to obscure my face; I developed obsessive habits in attempt to keep bacteria away from my skin
'Make-up became a self-imposed prison'
My relationship with make-up changed dramatically – no longer was it a creative outlet I opted into: it was a saving grace and a self-imposed prison which took me 45 minutes to apply once or twice a day, depending on my evening plans. I ruined relationships by refusing to wake up make-up-less next to another person. I avoided bodies of water and walking in the rain, kissing if I didn’t have concealer in my bag, trips to the beach if it meant applying suncream and causing further breakouts.
I dreaded sharing tents at festivals, moving into new flats, staying in hostels and basically any environment where my fake face might be removed to reveal what I regarded as a farce beneath. I experienced the closest I’ve ever come to an anxiety attack when my best friend gently convinced me to walk across my university campus to buy a coffee without make-up.
And the weirdest part of that all? I didn’t even notice my life was being slowly ruined. Not until four years later on Christmas morning of 2015, when a relative recoiled in faux-horror at the sight of my bare face on Skype. I lost half of my favourite day of the year to tears in my childhood bedroom, privately resolving to fix the problem, somehow.
And it’s for this very reason that Alicia Keys’ #NoMakeup movement makes me uneasy. To catch you up, in May 2016 Alicia Keys contributed an article called Time to Uncover to Lenny Letter, describing a decision to live a new life without make-up; a ‘revolution’ intended to enlighten women who spend their lives ‘hiding’ their ‘true selves’.
And yeezus, did we run with it. Between May and September, the term ‘No Makeup Movement’ soared by 88 percentage points on Google; Mila Kunis was applauded for going make-up free on the cover of August's issue of Glamour; Kim Kardashian attended Balenciaga’s show at Paris Fashion Week barefaced; a tsunami of celebs posted fresh-faced, glowy selfies in demonstration of support.
A couple of think-pieces raised a tinted eyebrow at the whole affair, pointing out that for many, make-up is a medium of artistry and expression, and that those who indulge in it for this reason shouldn’t be shamed. But nobody mentioned what seemed, to me at least, a glaringly obvious point – what if you feel like absolute fucking shit without make-up?
"Where are the role models with acne?"
I mean, I understand the premise. Keys is allegedly here to save me from feeling like absolute fucking shit without make-up. If celebs and role models would only promote bare faces and reduce the pressure on we mere mortals, a virtuous circle could begin. In a newfound utopia, we'd all throw our make-up bags into the sky and march in a victorious tickertape parade of discarded lipsticks. That's the idea.
But where are the role models with acne? Where are the people teaching me to be proud of my disordered skin? Where are the models bearing their usually hidden eczema? Where are the rosacea-ridden popstars taking a face-wipe to their cheeks? That’s right, they’re staying well away, because bare faces are only welcome and applauded when they’re comfortable for the rest of the world to behold.
Even Keys’ make-up artist stated that she undergoes a rigorous regime (which includes painstakingly rubbing ice on her face and applying hundreds of dollars worth of skincare) before appearing in public. Of course she fucking does – public judgement is petrifying. Remember when Renee Zellweger had the audacity to age facially and return to the public eye to promote her new film? Hollywood anarchy.
Sure, it’s vaguely encouraging to see a famous woman being celebrated rather than berated for refusing to pander to scrupulous beauty standards. But Keys’ personal decision shouldn’t be blown out of proportion and used to shame others. We need more than a humblebraggy hashtag – the No Makeup Movement is just a single puzzle piece in a picture of facial freedom.
So where are the other puzzle pieces? Well, how about the fact that CoverGirl magazine just appointed their first ever male ambassador and coverstar, YouTuber James Charles? How about removing gendered expectations altogether, so every single person on Earth can choose whether to paint themselves like a chameleon or abstain completely? If we care so deeply about feeling proud of our skin, why don’t we allow our screens and magazines to be full of completely normal blemishes, wrinkles, spots and marks? Because it's then, and only then that those who feel helpless at the sight of their own face will feel empowered, adequate and welcome – make-up or no make-up.