Celebrating acne is a confusing prospect

The #acnepositivity and #skinpositivity movements have made it possible for those living with the condition to feel more confident in their own skin. But even after following these influencers for some time, Jack Wynn still finds the concept difficult to take on board

It was during the transition from primary to secondary school when acne first entered my life. The small, unsightly whiteheads around my t-zone area fairly quickly turned into angry looking pustules, and with the majority of my classmates excitedly eager to move on with the next chapters of their social lives, I was left facing an uncertain future about whether I would fit into a scary new environment.

But unlike a recent study of 25,000 adults published in JAMA Dermatology claiming fatty foods and sugary drinks are indeed contributory factors to developing acne, my upbringing of eating a balanced diet was a contrast to some others who survived on crisps and chocolate bars, yet had clear, almost perfect complexions.   

The concept of acne and skin positivity would have been laughed at immediately when I was at school in the early 2000s and, inevitably, I became a visible target for bullies. It was certainly expected; my sister started the same secondary school two years before and encountered some similar experiences. Although the soul destroying taunts of ‘ugly’ and ‘go wash your face’ that bellowed down the halls left my confidence at an all time low, I was hopeful that my mother’s words of “it will all disappear in no time” would one day come true.

Zoe Vi, 31 from Dartford, had a similar experience when acne first entered her life at a very young age. “I remember it first starting for me when I was nine”, says Zoe. “When I was at school, my friend bought me an acne cream for my birthday, so that was when it first felt like it was a big issue.” The move to secondary school was when the condition got progressively worse for Zoe, and comments from family members didn’t help her situation, “I was getting a lot of criticism for my skin and my parents kept on telling me that it was best for me to cover it up. It then became a necessary thing for me to do before I left the house.”  

She agrees that the social media movements to normalise and embrace acne are a good thing for boosting confidence, even for those that don’t suffer with the condition themselves. “Even the people that don’t necessarily have acne, they’ll look at it and think, ‘well, if they have acne, then it’s a normal thing’. People that don’t have it [acne] can say some horrible things”, says Zoe. 

But as the increasing number of social media influencers from all over the world dedicated to skin or acne positivity are posting empowering messages of hope, showcasing acne’s visibility so publicly and proudly is difficult for me to process. I’ve always felt ashamed of the condition and, despite now only suffering with mild acne on my face and the tops of my legs, the horror and embarrassment has lived with me all of these years later. 

It was only a few years ago I would watch YouTube tutorials of people making their own DIY face masks out of lemon juice and crushed paracetamol, desperately attempting to combat the condition. But now, a dramatic shift in social attitudes is attempting to change how acne is perceived. 

Kate Kerr, an experienced clinical facialist based in London, agrees that being positive about acne is confusing and regularly meets with clients desperately wanting to get rid of the condition. “Acne is a medical condition, I don’t think anyone could be happy to accept a medical condition and be positive about it when there is treatment available,” says Kate. “The thing is, with acne, it can easily cause scarring and the scarring effects can be with you for life. The psychological effects of acne are very far-reaching and I find people actually have more of an unrealistic expectation of skin health and clarity nowadays because of social media.” 

Kate also recognises the potential physical scarring effects of acne and how this could impact an individual’s self-esteem. “The scarring is something to take into account. So the acne may not bother you now, but the scarring that’s left over may bother you. Even if not now, but in years to come. I think it’s something that shouldn’t be left.”

Eve Langhorn, 25, works as a marketing and PR manager in London and first developed acne shortly after her teenage years at the age of 20. After using topical treatments such as benzoyl peroxide and undergoing an eight-month course of Roaccutane, Eve’s skin doesn’t breakout as much as it did in the beginning, but flare ups sometimes occur. “I don’t have perfect skin by any means and acne comes back in waves”, says Eve, who praises the skin positivity movement as a way of promoting acceptance.

In her group of girlfriends, she considers herself to be the ‘token friend’ with bad skin, “Unfortunately, I’m in a friend group of eight girls and I’m the token friend who has bad skin. You know, if there had been more of a push for skin positivity a few years ago, it would have maybe helped me out.” 

As it’s expected that influencer marketing will grow to an estimated $9.7 billion in 2020, the positivity movement also means big business and a profitable avenue for skincare brands to advertise. Dixie D’Amelio, a US TikTok social media influencer with more than 26 million followers, was recently awarded an ambassador role for Dermalogica’s Clear Start brand. Part of the campaign is for Dixie to discuss her personal experience with acne and it coincided with the release of their new Clear Start FlashFoliant exfoliator. Moving into the social media influencer marketing space was described by Carly Rogers, business leader at Clear Start, Dermalogica as “the most successful way to build our community brand awareness.” 

The problem I see here is building reliability; the products being promoted could well be a viable option for some to help manage their acne, but there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to the condition. For me, and others I’ve spoken with via Facebook forums such as Acne Support Group UK over the years, a combination of a good skincare regime and lifestyle factors such as minimising the amount of sugar in your diet, limiting alcohol consumption and avoiding direct exposure to harsh sunlight are also contributory factors to calming the condition. 

But not all influencers are in the game of pushing products to their followers. Lou Northcote, a former contestant on Britain’s Next Top Model and creator of the #FreeThePimple Instagram movement, is an example of a growing influencer making an impact. Not only is her mission to normalise acne, she also gives useful tips and advice she has learnt from dermatologists and other skincare professionals on the active ingredients brands use and how these can be really beneficial for the skin, telling Women’s Health UK in May this year, “I really try to use my platform to educate people. I’m lucky to have had access to all these dermatologists and all this different skincare, so I try to share that.”     

From what I’ve encountered, I initially thought the acne positivity influencer market was oversaturated. As someone that follows the movement and works with social media on a daily basis, I was curious to find out Eve’s thoughts on whether this was the case. “I think, from my perspective, there’s not enough of them to promote it”, says Eve Langhorn, marketing and PR manager. “I don’t think enough is being done. There will always be a strive to achieve perfection, though. I think it can be more normalised but I don’t think it can ever be fully accepted.” 

Positivity influencers could also be instrumental in the campaign to introduce more psychological help for those with skin conditions including acne, such as managing stress and body dysmorphia. The British Skin Foundation found as a result of a 2019 study that 87% of dermatologists agree more psychological treatments are needed for both children and adults. Dr Maria Gonzalez, medical director at the Specialist Skin Clinic in Cardiff and a dermatologist with more than 25 years’ experience, says this has been an issue for quite some time and may be even harder to action during the current pandemic. “The main problem with this is funding, especially on the NHS,” says Dr Gonzalez. “With private practice, they can do this [refer to counselling services]. But with the NHS, this will not happen anytime soon, particularly during the current climate.” 

However, there are some support initiatives available on the NHS. The Psychology in Dermatology Service at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital in London, for example, provides emotional support to those experiencing difficulties with day-to-day activities as a result of having a skin condition. The service, which schedules one-hour appointments either in-person, over the phone or Skype, helps to deal with issues such as anxiety, coping with different treatments, long-term management techniques, and the effect the skin condition may have on self-esteem. The Skin Support website, created by the British Association of Dermatologists (BAD), also provides useful tools recommended by professionals.  

To this day, it’s still daunting for me to have a picture taken at a certain closeness in case it magnifies some of the leftover scarring, and sometimes the thought of a video call during one of my rare but problematic flare ups makes my heart race. I especially could never imagine during the times where I was battling severe cystic acne I would choose to post pictures so exposed and in a vulnerable position. I still struggle with the idea of embracing the condition, and I can’t help but sometimes wonder about how happy social media influencers truly are that they feel the need to expose a deeply vulnerable part of their lives. But I must try to remember the change in social acceptance of acne and how the positivity movement is making a significant impact for many sufferers.

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