26 Aug

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 about his own pimply 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 sores 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.

Fuck. Me.

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.


20 Responses to “Zits”

  1. Iona Nerissa August 26, 2013 at 4:59 am #

    I had bad acne as a teenager too.. mostly on my face and I would wash my face til it was red and the acne swollen.. then I would put rubbing alcohol on my face and it would sting with such pain until I threw myself upon my bed and cried. It was just one more reminder that, like you said, I was a social pariah and hated myself even more. I am in my late 40s and I still get one or two zits a month, even though my skin is now dry. It just never seems to end.

  2. mrsa122995 August 26, 2013 at 5:00 am #

    I wanted to say thanks for sharing this. It resonated powerfully with me. My category of ugliest person in the world was Fat Girl division. Some of the things you said were so true for me – thinking that anyone who expressed interest in me was pranking me. My orthodontist hounded me at every visit – Didn’t I want to be “thin and lovely?” (What was it to him?) Sick to death of weight loss articles in magazines. (No one could ever just accept themselves the way they are, right? Well, yeah, for SOME things, but not if they’re FAT?!) Sick of making the worst fat jokes first to prove I was a good sport. Anyway, I do not mean to equate my hurt with yours, and I definitely do not mean to hijack your topic. I just wanted to say that shaming sucks, and I am really sorry that you went through this. Also, I hope your dermatologist and my orthodontist are… experiencing karma.

  3. ceejaedevine August 26, 2013 at 5:52 am #


    Acne is one of those subjects that I didn’t know how to address for a long time because I knew that people who have acne feel like this:

    “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.”

    One day I decided to give it a shot with this blog post. I hope you’ll check it out: http://ceejae-devine.com/sickeningly-sweet/.

  4. Zed August 26, 2013 at 5:58 am #

    Thank you for this post. I don’t think anyone who hasn’t experienced it can understand how fucking horrible it feels to be so horrified at how you look that you can’t look at people in the eye, to know which mirrors in your house never to look at because they make your skin look horrible, to have your grandmother look at you with disgust, to look at utter contempt at the proactive models with their perfect skin using “acne-fighting” cream on their one painted on pimple, to fantasize about throwing yourself under the train rather then get on it and spend another day having people look at you, to go through a year of being actively suicidal without telling anyone because you know if you do they’ll take you off accutane…

  5. art & life notes August 26, 2013 at 6:11 am #

    Wow…that was painfully familiar. I was one of the 3 guys in the world (I was counting) who had to have zits across the back and shoulders as well. Even so, I recognized that being a guy with zits wasn’t quite as bad as being a girl with zits, not that it was much consolation at the time. I’m sorry that life can be so unfair.

    I wonder if you were familiar with Janis Ian’s song “At Seventeen.” It’s remarkable how that song moved me, and made me feel a bit less like a freak. I had the good fortune of being a teenager when that song hit the top 40. But you’re right; there are very few role models with bad skin in popular culture. You may be the only one many of us could name.

    Grace and peace to you.

  6. Writer / Mummy August 26, 2013 at 7:00 am #

    Gosh this brought back memories, especially the treatment that used to feel like it was burning the skin off your face. I wore giant glasses and had a giant perm to hide my face (plus foundation which probably just made it worse). It’s hard to talk about it without offending people – I remember asking a lad who also had terrible acne (worse than mine) what treatment he used, and was treated like a bully for mentioning it. My mum once said (I think to make me feel better – it didn’t) that she was impressed at how I dealt with it because “if I had skin like yours I’d have a total complex by now.” Gee, thanks Mum.

  7. theclocktowersunset August 26, 2013 at 7:36 am #

    I got the torture too. I hated the ones that hurt so bad in the middle of the school day you just had to pop them but you knew your face would bleed the rest of the day. And the ones on the temple, in that perfect spot to give you a migraine for at least three days if not more. Only to subside and come back a week later. and forget taking your shirt off at the pool. It’s an evil curse of sorts alright, just know you’re not alone…. 🙂

  8. Plathfan86 August 26, 2013 at 10:11 am #

    This was such a satisfying read. I developed acne in my early twenties and if try to talk about it I usually get something along the lines of ‘Maybe you should lay off the foundation for a while’, or ‘try sitting in the sun for a bit’. I always felt that this was not only patronising and un-feasible, but any advice always made me feel that I truly did have something serious to worry about and should do whatever I can to get rid. My doctor, and his sympathetic face suggested that it must be even harder for me because he ‘wouldn’t want to be in his mid-twenties, the prime age, with something that, you know, might get in the way’. I’m sorry ‘get in the way’ of what? I’m already partnered up, thanks, and luckily, we don’t factor my acne in to the question of reproduction, or reproductive activities! I’m 27 now and they’re still going strong. Ironically, I think it’s largely due to my hormones and my child bearing age because they flare up on a cyclical basis. So, yes, just one representation of someone just getting on with things and (shock-horror) having acne at the same time, would be superb. Nearly all baddies in TV and film have horrific acne scars. It’s pretty patronising to suggest that we need such visuals to emphasise a person’s capabilities for being ‘bad’. Let’s put the acne scarred one as the baddie, again, just in case his plotting to destroy the world isn’t getting the message across. Thanks for sharing.

  9. edenkaill August 26, 2013 at 10:46 am #

    You know, I hate Dov Charney and I have largely negative opinions about American Apparel but sometimes my heart sings with joy at their ads, because the models often have zits and pores and greasy patches, and are adorable.

  10. Andrea August 26, 2013 at 1:23 pm #

    Been there, done that, and as an adult (56) with ADD, it has an even more wonderful name: pickers neuritis. With me, it’s caused by higher testosterone levels and surgical menopause @32. I’ve inherited my mother’s hirsuteness (been plucking and shaving since I was 14, what joy) and now they are WHITE (gees). It WAS worse while I was on HRT, now, the doc’s given my clindomycin cream and hydrocortizone which helps at times, but not enough….

    I have always been the tallest, the biggest and I was an October baby so I was one of the youngest in my HS class. I know EXACTLY what you talk about-what we all inwardly talk about. It does get better, or you get old enough so it becomes a don’t matter (as much). Be good to yourself and thanx for sharing about stuff mist of us blogaholics deal with

  11. Stephanie August 26, 2013 at 2:27 pm #

    Like being a teenager isn’t hard enough. I’m sorry. I actually saw a movie the other day where the girl had not great skin. It wasn’t full-fledged acne, but her skin definitely had zits and was shiny, which is more than you usually see in movies. (The Spectacular Now.) I was kind of impressed at the time.

  12. Burns the Fire August 26, 2013 at 3:57 pm #

    Powerful post, thank you for this. It should help to inspire us all to take a good, DEEP look at ourselves.

  13. Groupie for the Underdog August 26, 2013 at 6:33 pm #

    Thank you for this post. I suffer from good old ‘adult acne’ too and spent a good deal of my coming of age years answering the question “What is wrong with your face?”, usually pondered by boys I fancied. It is better than it used to be but still what they would label ‘problem skin’ but you are right, it isn’t really – it is just mine. Thanks again and I really enjoy your blog.


  14. coffee zombie August 26, 2013 at 7:37 pm #

    I too have adult acne on my face, back and chest. I’ve learned to live with it, and rarely bother to try hiding it anymore – mainly because makeup makes it worse. I’ve got acne scars up the wazoo also, thanks to my skin’s hyperpigmentation tendency. The only coping mechanism I use is if I photograph myself (I do selfies for photography practice), I’ll photoshop them out. That makes me feel a little better, a little more normal.

    No real point to this comment other than to say you’re not alone.

  15. Quickstepp August 26, 2013 at 8:33 pm #

    The worst! Ugh. I was lucky enough to have parents who would take me to the doctor; even if that resulted in little relief. It was always about trying the latest acid that would eat 10 layers of your skin off or pills with insanely horrible side effects.

  16. glasshill August 26, 2013 at 8:39 pm #

    I honestly believed that when I turned 20 my skin would miraculously clear up (and I would understand life, the universe and everything) – we know how that went. I’ll be 50 next year and I’m still using acne creams/cleansers/products along with my wrinkle products. The good thing about age is that I care less, or at least I try to… okay that’s the party line, I’m still always on the look out for the next great miracle cream for my skin. ah well…. hang in there.

  17. sarahdietitian August 28, 2013 at 8:30 pm #

    Thank you. Your post really resonates with me. I am 35 and have suffered with acne since I was 14. I’m also a dietitian, qualified 12 years. Every GP and dermatologist told me diet was not related. Dietitians told me diet was not related. What I do know (it took me nearly 20 years to discover) is that, for me, diet is most definitely related. Here is my blog post, it is not as articulate or as beautifully written as yours, but I hope it gets my point across. http://sarahdietitian.com/2013/08/14/gluten-diet-acne-spots/

  18. Jennie Saia September 9, 2013 at 6:35 pm #

    I’m late to the party here, but I wanted to comment. I understand and agree with all of what you wrote, including having acne as an adult. I think peoples’ experiences with Accutane prove how desperate we all are to clear up our skin… teenagers especially are literally willing to risk chemically-induced depression and suicidal thoughts in their quest for less zits, because they already feel depressed from how awful the teasing and self-loathing is. Zits are like fat – one of those “unacceptable” conditions of being that is always assumed to be the fault of the individual; certainly if they weren’t so dirty/lazy/overindulgent, they wouldn’t bring this on themselves.

    I especially grimaced at the comment you got about using pus as white-out. I remember when I had first started my period, I was on a school field trip and fell asleep on the bus. When I woke up, it was to a girl poking a pencil between my thighs. We were passing through hog farm country, and she loudly announced that the pencil had ruptured my vagina and the nasty smell was coming from me.

    Even now, when those comments don’t hurt anymore, they’re fascinating in their cruelty. How were these bullies even coming up with this stuff? And no, it is in no way too much to ask that people with zits be shown in the media. I was always thrilled when I saw those issues of magazines showing stars without their make-up; I didn’t feel good about them getting called out, but I was just so relieved to know that Jessica Simpson got pimples, too.

  19. programme January 26, 2014 at 5:51 am #

    Yes! Finally someone writes about pimples.

  20. Sarah June 6, 2014 at 8:36 pm #

    Actually, – unless we start to think for ourselves, look after ourselves and become responsible – not a single thing is gonna change. My ex-husband was like that – inactive, childish and demanding, now he’s sitting on imgur all-day upvoting puns about masturbation. In case you don’t fight, you lose it. Excellent article. xOxOx Sarah- http://phytoceramidesreviewstv.com/
    Sarah http://phytoceramidesreviewstv.com/

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