I grew up on magazines. As a child I devoured Girl Talk and Shout before graduating to Girlfriend and Dolly when I moved to New Zealand. The ultimate height of sophistication, of course, was Cosmopolitan. My friends and I devoured the articles during lunch break at high school, and I would walk between classes with the latest issue prominently displayed under my arm.
These magazines played a huge role in my transition to adulthood, and even now I feel a pang of nostalgia whenever I pass the overstuffed racks at the supermarket.
But you know what they didn’t teach us within those glossy pages? Adult acne is a thing. And it really, really sucks.
When I met my now-boyfriend, I decided to be responsible and go on some form of birth control. After much consideration and research I chose the contraceptive implant, and visited a clinic on a sunny London morning to have it inserted into my arm.
I had no idea that this one simple action would change the course of my life.
I half-listened as the nurse skimmed through the usual warnings about mood changes and cramps. I can vaguely remember the subject of acne being touched on, but nothing prepared me for what was to come.
Even now when I Google the side effects of the contraceptive implant, acne is quietly listed as a ‘less serious’ consequence. There’s no mention of cystic acne – those deep, incredibly painful lumps and nodules under the skin. No mention of the psychological impact that this condition can leave you with, and certainly no mention of the noticeable scarring that can linger long after the acne has disappeared. It’s easy to assume that at worst, you might just get a few spots. And who cares about a few spots?
A couple of days after the implant had been inserted, I started to break out. This was pretty unusual for me, as I’d always enjoyed relatively clear skin throughout my teenage years and early twenties. At first it wasn’t too bad, just a couple of pimples here and there, but as the weeks went by it started to get worse.
Eventually I’d had enough. I marched to the local doctor’s surgery and demanded that they remove the implant, assuming that it was the culprit.
But the damage was already done. Removing the implant seemed to trigger something – straight away my hormones went crazy and my face and back erupted in severe, painful cystic acne. It was worse than I had ever imagined it could be.
I couldn’t recognise myself in the mirror. My face was swollen, distorted and incredibly inflamed. Makeup became too painful to apply, so I had to stop wearing it. It didn’t even look good anyway: nothing could hide the angry red bumps that covered my face.
Unsurprisingly, I was reduced to a shell of my former self. I stopped seeing my friends, avoided video chats with my parents and kept my eyes firmly fixed on the floor whenever I was forced to be out in public. I couldn’t help but notice the stares from strangers, the pity in their eyes. I wanted to shout, “This isn’t me! There’s an attractive, confident girl under here!”
At the time I didn’t realise just how much my appearance was affecting me, and as a result I didn’t do anything to safeguard my mental health. I saw the angry red bumps purely as a physical ailment, and was convinced that once my skin was cured I would be ‘back to normal.’
Finally, my hormones began to balance out and the acne slowly disappeared. My problems were solved… right?
Wrong. The clearer my skin became, the worse I felt. I couldn’t understand it – why was I still so unhappy?
Well, hindsight is a wonderful thing! I had spent almost an entire year telling myself that I was ugly, without considering the significant impact that this was having on my self-esteem. Looking back, it’s clear that I put all of my value into how I looked. I was still the same person on the inside, but that wasn’t good enough for me. I no longer fitted the mould of what society considers attractive, and therefore in my eyes I was worth nothing.
Revelations don’t always happen overnight. It’s taken years of self-reflection and hard lessons, but I’ve finally realised a few things about myself and the image-obsessed society that we live in.
I had always felt validated by the way I was viewed and treated by other people – not how I treated myself. The most important thing to me was whether people were admiring me, envious of me or interested in me. I always felt like I was in competition with other women – but over what? If I wasn’t the prettiest girl in the room then I wasn’t happy. That’s no way to live!
When I developed acne I felt like I would never be happy again, simply because I no longer fitted into society’s view of what is considered ‘beautiful.’ I was dragging myself through life feeling completely worthless, just because a group of random people got together at some point and decided that there’s only one appropriate way for my skin to look. Well, screw them. Who says you need perfect skin to be attractive?
Maybe I no longer receive attention all day, every day. Maybe I don’t dance wildly all night in a club, fuelled by alcohol and the knowledge that people are watching me.
And you know what? I genuinely don’t care. I’ve found something inside of me that was there all along, just waiting to be noticed.
I am enough. The things that are really important – love, happiness, compassion, kindness, family, friends – they don’t care what I look like. I can cook a delicious meal, explore new countries and laugh until my stomach hurts with no thought at all about my appearance. Once I realised that, my outlook on life completely changed.
Often, what you perceive to be the problem turns out not to be the actual problem. I thought my problem was that I had acne on my face – in fact, my problem was that I only liked myself based on what other people thought of me.
Even now I have days when I struggle. My encounter with cystic acne left me with battle wounds – my chin and forehead are marked with small scars, daily reminders of that hellish period of my life. I still think about them a little too much, but I’m working on it.
Society still has a long way to go when it comes to accepting natural imperfections, features and body types that differ from what is shown in the media. We’re bombarded with images of the ‘ideal look’ and told that to be beautiful (and therefore worthy!) we need to eat less, exercise more, wear this, buy that. I don’t know about you, but I’m getting a little tired of it.
Developing cystic acne wasn’t my fault. I had a bad reaction to the contraceptive implant, that’s all! There was nothing to be ashamed of. At the time I berated myself constantly, even though realistically there was nothing I could have done to predict or change it.
Maybe your acne is due to hormones, stress or an underlying health condition. It could be as simple as needing to switch to a lighter moisturiser! No matter the cause, just remember that you haven’t done anything wrong.
If you’re going through what I went through, you’re not alone. There are millions of us out there. During my acne struggle I was convinced that everyone else had beautifully clear skin, but in reality that wasn’t the case. So why do you rarely see someone with severe cystic acne out on the street? Sadly, many people with this condition end up isolating themselves from society. In fact, acne sufferers are almost two-thirds more likely to suffer from depression.
I know it’s tough, but you need to keep your head held high. You have just as much right to be seen. Refusing to hide away sends a clear message to yourself and the world – that you are worth far, far more than your physical appearance. We all need to hear that.
Acne is more than just skin-deep, and the emotional scars can last much longer than the physical marks. It’s so important to be kind to yourself. Don’t be afraid of seeking help – it took me a long time to gather up the courage to start attending therapy sessions, but it was one of the best things I ever did for myself.
Never forget that no matter your circumstances, you have the power to set an example to other people who are going through the same thing. As Steve Jobs famously said, “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”
And what better way to start than by boldly, unashamedly loving yourself just the way that you are?
If you’re struggling to cope with acne or any type of skin condition, I’m here for you. Drop me an email – I promise I’ll be replying to each and every one. You don’t have to do this alone.