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14th February 2024

Conversations about acne #2: What I wish I’d known

Acne can often feel like the end of the world, but you’re not alone. Read on to find out the details of one student’s acne journey and the things they wish they could tell their younger self
Conversations about acne #2: What I wish I’d known
Photo credits: Anna Nekrashevich @ Pexels

‘Conversations about acne’ is a series at The Mancunion Fashion & Beauty section in which Manchester students share their personal skin struggles and offer some tips based on their own acne journey. It’s time to talk about student skin and normalise the common reality of adult acne, so read on to find out how your peers are coping…

In Phoebe-Waller Bridge’s Fleabag, Fleabag and her sister Claire believe themselves to be “bad feminists” after admitting that they would trade five years of their life for the “perfect body”

If you had asked me a couple of years ago whether I would trade five years of my life for ‘perfect skin’, I would have said yes – I would have probably traded 15, to be honest. Maybe that makes me a bad feminist too, but acne has played a massive part in my teenage experience, and it’s hard to minimise that – even if it feels superficial and overdramatic.

I have had acne for pretty much all of my teenage years. In year seven, everyone was getting spots, and we quickly became hormonal messes who feared the Sixth Formers who were twice our size. But as others’ teenage acne seemed to fade, it felt like mine was never going to go away.

Whilst it fluctuated during this time, my relationship with my skin has been overwhelmingly negative. It has been a long time since I haven’t felt self-conscious about my skin, and acne has done an almost impressive amount of damage to my self-confidence and the way in which I view myself (thank you, acne).

For a lot of this time, I felt ashamed and embarrassed, and whilst it seems a superficial reason, the emotional impact of acne is something that often goes under the radar. Boots might sell a quick fix to get rid of a spot, but no one sells a face wash that rids you of long-term skin-related anxiety and insecurity.

Here are a few things that I wish I could’ve told myself when my acne was getting the better of me:

You are not dirty

Somewhere along the line of my acne journey, I decided that I must be the most disgusting and unclean teenager known to man, for there was simply no other reason for my skin to be this bad. I sat out of locker-room chats about skincare and makeup, scared that others might take one look at my acne and laugh at any contribution I made, because there was no way anyone was taking my advice.

I was embarrassed to peruse the skincare aisle in Boots, worried that a shop assistant might think that I’d never washed my face before. In fact, I was pretty regimented when it came to my skin; I never slept in my makeup, always washed my face after brushing my teeth, and never missed a dose of Accutane.

Of course, a lot of this paranoia was in my head, but it didn’t help that ads, TV shows, and films had cemented this image of the gross, spotty, sweaty, unlovable neek in popular culture. I constantly felt like the ‘before’ in a 2000s rom-com transformation montage.

If I could time travel, aside from saving the world or whatever, I’d like to tell young Elli that her acne did not make her dirty. I was not an inherently unhygienic person, and anyone who made me feel otherwise was feeding into an outdated and unfair misunderstanding of acne and its causes.

No one notices as much as you do

This leads me onto my second piece of advice for myself, which is that no one notices as much as you do. Over the years, I have let my acne bother me to a genuinely all-consuming extent. I couldn’t go to school without a full face of makeup on, and I lived in constant fear that someone might see my bare, acne-ridden face and declare me totally and utterly disgusting.

Covid mask-wearing in school felt like the one good thing about a global pandemic during Sixth Form. No one had to see my face. I was free, at last! Sleepovers were my worst nightmare, and don’t even get me started on one-night stands. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve left someone’s room in the early hours of the morning more than once out of fear that they’d see me sans makeup when they woke up.

But here’s the thing: no one notices your insecurities as much as you do. It’s unfortunate that my greatest insecurity was indeed my actual face, but my friends never pointed it out. If a friend ever complained about a spot that they thought was horrendous, I used to feel angry and embarrassed – if they thought that was bad, they must’ve thought my face was monstrous. But, looking back now, that only proves my point; everyone is so wrapped up in their own flaws, that there’s never much time to notice anyone else’s. And, truly, if your friends do pick up on your insecurities, they simply aren’t good friends.

Your feelings are valid

This being said, feeling insecure about your skin does not make you a shallow person. In this clean-girl-no-makeup-fresh-faced era, where we are fed the idea that not embracing your natural beauty is a cardinal sin, it is difficult to feel like your feelings around acne are valid.

Not enough people are talking about the mental side of acne, especially during your formative years, when life is already tough enough. Caring about the way you look sometimes doesn’t make you superficial, but that isn’t to say that it’s healthy to feel debilitating anxiety when you have to leave the house without makeup. There is a need for balance; the mental struggle is so real, and overcoming this ingrained mindset is extremely difficult.

It is possible to stop your acne from controlling your own self-image and self-worth, but it takes time to work out what this might look like for you, be it physical or mental.

Take a look at the last article in the ‘Conversations about acne‘ series with Head Opinion Editor Alexandra Baynes.

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