On Acne, Self-Esteem, And Relationship Dynamics

by Sonya Mann

I'm 20 years old and I have acne. As a spotty middle schooler, I dreamed that I would have perfect Miss America skin right after turning 18 — but that is sooo not how it worked. When I was 15, my mom took me to a dermatologist, who eventually prescribed the scary drug Accutane. If you're on Accutane, you must use birth control, even if you're not sexually active — because maybe you're lying and then you will have a deformed baby. I'm not even kidding.

It was like that scene from Mean Girls where the gym teacher tells all the students, "At your age, you're gonna be having a lot of urges. You're gonna want to take off your clothes, and touch each other. But if you do touch each other, you will get chlamydia. And die." Accutane effectively cleared up my skin, but I had to stop taking it after having a nervous breakdown during my sophomore year. (The drug also exacerbates depression, angst, dysfunction, etc., etc.! Hooray!) The zits came back, so I had to resign myself to the pimple-poppin' life.

Throughout all of this, I dated up a storm. Like most teenage girls, I was boy crazy. Neither my bad skin nor my self-esteem issues ever stopped me from getting laid. (Pretend I said that in a more ladylike way.) In fact, it was quite the opposite: I strung along the sweet guys and slept with some real jerks because I craved attention and affection. None of them minded my conspicuous blemishes, or at least they never said anything. Possibly I missed out on the primo hunks because I wasn't perfect enough, but c'est la vie. I'm sure someone is eager to tell me that those guys weren't worth my time anyway.

(My face circa 2013, presumably on a good day.)

Now I'm finally dating a wonderful man who loves me for me — for my personality. It sounds cheesy. It is cheesy. And IT IS THE BEST. I mean, he does think I'm cute, and says so all the time. But he also laughs at my dumb jokes and does everything else that you're supposed to want from a relationship. But here's the thing: I still hate my skin. I feel guilty about my acne. Leaning close to the mirror to examine my face, I think, "Wow, he's so great, and he has to hang out with me even though I look like a mess because I seriously cannot stop picking at my skin." (Compulsion is weird.) This mindset is similar to when I dated awful guys. My boyfriend is delighted to hang out with me no matter how I look, but I still feel lousy — like I'm cheating him out of a flawless girlfriend.

The only way that acne inhibits my romantic life is by affecting how I feel about myself. In high school, it was part of why I had low standards, and now I use it as an excuse for not feeling "good enough." Logically, the idea of "good enough" is nonsense. No one is perfect, except for Lupita Nyong'o, and there is no objective standard to measure against. Unfortunately, the human mind has a limited capacity for logic. Or maybe it's the ol' left-brain-right-brain division: Half of my head understands reason and half of my head insists, "No, you suck! You really do suck!"


The body-positive movement has been a fantastic answer to the mainstream supposition that you have to be white, thin, and young to be pretty — or that you have to be pretty at all. Body positivity disrupts the restrictive status quo, telling Vogue to sit down and giving aesthetic agency back to you and me. I understand all of this: I was lucky enough to watch it happen. And yes, it does help. Now, instead of criticizing my skin and telling myself, "You're ugly and terrible," I criticize my skin and then scold myself for doing it. Hopefully someday I can bypass this step altogether.

Reviewing my sexual history, I have to conclude one of two things. Either guys don't care how I look, or I don't look as bad as I think I do, even by the mainstream rubric. It's probably a little of both. What matters most is how I feel about how I look, because that influences my actions. You know the way putting on a fabulous dress can instantly boost your mood? A dress that fits comfortably, with a perfect vibrant color and a twirly skirt, can help drag you out of the "I hate my body" dumps. I need something like that for my skin.

Realistically, what I have to do is keep slogging through the mud of self-esteem work, arguing with myself in the mirror until the message changes. Luckily, when I try to tell myself that no one will ever want me, I have evidence to the contrary.

Images: Flickr/Antonio MaloMalverde/Boston Public Library; Getty Images