Acne Is Not Identity


Maya is a 4th-year college student who lives in Atlanta, Ga.

How do images of skin that seem inauthentic or unattainable affect you?

Maya: I don’t really see images of people in the media who have acne because acne is seen as something wrong. Acne is seen as something, you know… “bad.” This makes me feel so isolated. And then, I already feel isolated, because in terms of attractiveness, sometimes, I already feel like a “five or below.” I think to myself - “oh, my gosh, am I not clean? Am I not doing enough?”

On bad days, I just want to take sandpaper to my face. I just want to be seen as a person, not something with acne. But, that’s how I feel on those days. I felt like something with acne. I fear that people see my acne before they actually see me. A lot of the time, I feel like I’m seen as that girl with acne.”So, that was extremely isolating especially when you’re growing up and trying to figure out who you are as a person. It’s really tough. It even creates paranoia.

Even if people don’t see my acne first, I feel like they do.  I feel like they're just not saying anything. So, even when people aren't isolating me because of my acne, I feel that way on the inside. Then, I end up isolating myself. Acne can become an isolating factor in my life.


So, when did you first have acne?

Maya: Um, I would say it started probably around the time my period started which was probably around 11.


Did you know what was happening when your skin first started changing?

Maya: Yeah, I knew what was happening. My mom explained it to me as “I was just growing.”So, I was like - “Okay, so they’ll just go away.”But they didn’t, and they just got worse. When that happened, I was like - “oh, God!”You know?

And um, after a while, I kind of just got used to it. With acne, it starts off as just one bump here and one bump there. But then, the next thing you know… it’s a cycle. You get one bump to go away, but then there’s another oneover here, and then there's another oneover there.

And when I do get them to go way - there are scars. I can make my acne go away sometimes, but there are times when I feel like I’m living in a cyclical existence with acne.


So makeup - when you first put makeup on, and it coveredyour skin, how did that make you feel?

Maya: So. D**N. HAPPY.  Excuse my cursing, but like it has been like magic in a bottle. It is literally everything I could have asked for. It’s so amazing. I remember when I first got it. I first started wearing makeup when I was going to my junior prom. I went to Macy’s, I got the makeover, and everything like that. It was so life changing. My Tarte Amazonian clay foundation is my sh*t. I’m sorry I keep cursing, but it has been so important to me. That is my holy grail. I literally keep it like in this little case because it’s so pristine and magical to me. I put it specifically where the bumps are to even out my skin tone.

I use it as sparingly as I can so I can have as much of it as possible. Before, I was just wearing this foundation. But now, I’ve started going online and looking up how to create different looks. When I first went on YouTube, I started noticing these people who had these amazingly made-up faces. I saw the before and after. They’d go from looking like a normal person, and then they are transformed into these glamorous beings. You know what I mean? I saw that, and I wanted to attain that. I wanted to know how to do that, so I started off with foundation, then I got bronzer, then I got blush, then I got eyeshadow, and then I got eyeliner.

So, when you see commercials with models, and they have makeup on, how do you feel? After makeup, did you no longer feel oppressed by those images?

Maya: The thing is with the models is this: It’s not like I hate them. I wanted to be like them so that’s why it was oppressive, but when I watched makeup videos it was different. Makeup videos aren’t oppressive because they give me instructions on how to look phenomenal. There are very clear instructions that I can follow, and they suggest products that I can buy with the money I have. They tell me about drug store brands versus high-end products. There is always a way to make yourself look fabulous. They provide me with a way to be like - glamorous. When you see commercials that feature women with flawless skin, you also don’t see a way to attain beauty, and that used to be very problematic for me.

However, the beauty community on YouTube showed me a path to feeling good with acne. Whether it was for art or how to survive high school, they taught me how to use makeup to empower myself.  They’ve taught me what my mother did not. They were like parental figures to me. They’ve taught me how to survive, how to thrive, and how to feel beautiful. Not only have they taught me how to wear makeup and things like that, but they’ve taught me how to feel skilled. The first time I perfected a winged eye, I was so happy. And then, I gained the confidence to perfectly bronze and contour my face, how to put on a long-lasting foundation, how to do a cut crease, how to do a halo, and how to do a smokey eye.

I did not purely learn this to make my face look a certain way, but I also learned this for personal skills, you know? A lot of the time, I felt like I didn’t have a lot of skills. Makeup has become something that I am good at. And so, it is helpful in that way as well. It also became helpful in allowing me to learn how to be myself. A lot of YouTubers have very distinctive personalities, so they’ve made me feel like it’s okay to be unique. Through makeup, I felt like I had the chance to express and be myself.

Is watching videos of models different than watching, for example, Nikkietutorials? Is that experience different than watching Vogue models do makeup?

Maya: Yes! It’s extremely different. The first video that I watched of NikkieTutorials was called “The Power of Makeup.” She did one half of her face completely with full makeup, and the other side was bare. She talked about how she is beautiful both ways. Since she has a round face, she talked about how people say “I don’t recognize you!”when she goes without makeup or doesn’t contour her face. People say she is not the same person. So, she made that video to show how versatile people are. People are complex, and they can show their personalities in different ways like makeup. Makeup is an art form. Makeup is a demonstration and accentuation of the self. It is an art that elevates how your natural face looks, and that is really empowering.

I’ve been trying to learn that I am only enhancing my beauty through makeup, not creating it. My face is a canvas. I like my lips. I like my cupid’s bow. I like the way my cheeks are shaped. When I do my skincare routine, I have a bare face. After I’m done, I can see my skin glowing, and feel beautiful. I can see my eyes and my lips without makeup. I’m able to take in myself.

So, when you were younger - this is kind of a heavy question - before you found makeup and self-empowerment on how to feel beautiful, what was the experience of looking in the mirror like?

Maya: ……It wasn’t good. I didn’t really have love for myself. It didn’t just stem from acne though. However, acne was just another supporting detail for other issues that I had with myself. To me, acne represented more than an imperfection. The word imperfection supposes that without it, you would be perfect. That’s not what I saw. That’s not what I saw when I looked at myself. In essence, I didn’t really see imperfections. I didn’t feel like -“oh, if I just didn’t have acne, I would be okay.”No, I didn’t see beauty as being achievable for me. I didn’t see that for myself.

Whatwould you say to people who feel like beauty is unattainable for them?

Maya: I’m not going to start with saying - “don’t believe them.”When people used to tell me that, I just used to think:

“Great, thanks! That’s nice for you to say. That’s really nice for you to say! You’re not the one who’s being called out of their name every day. You’re not the one who gets looked at like you’re impure and less than every day.”

So, how in the world are you going to tell me - “oh, don’t believe them. Kumbaya!”???No, I’m not going to say that. I think that what I would say to young people who feel as if they’re not worth anything is that you’re not gonna feel that way forever. And I do truly believe that. As you grow up, situations change. I’m not talking about society, and I’m not talking about how people view you. I’m talking about how situations change.

Eventually, you’re going to get out of high school. Eventually, you’re going to get out of that. Eventually, you’re going to get out of college. Eventually, they’re going to be transitional states in your life. Back in grade school and high school, I would always wish that I could just move. I did not even care if it were just the next school over. I just wanted to move so that I could maybe I could have a new start. Maybe, I could start again, you know? That’s all I ever wanted - just to start again.

Transitional states are always an opportunity to find something. I found makeup, and that was something monumental for me. After I found makeup, doors started opening for me. When I moved to the next transitional state, which was college, I was able to kind of come out of my shell a little bit. And yea, there were some people that didn’t like me upon meeting me or even upon sight. But in that state, I was able to have more time for myself. I was able to think for myself and to think about what I like. Your freshman year, you’re constantly introducing yourself in college, telling your pronouns, and saying who you are. And with that comes reflection. You have time to truly think about who you are as a person. With that, I was able to find other things. I was able to find that I love reading, I love listening to music, and that I love drawing.

I love drawing faces because faces are so expressive. Faces are so beautiful. There’s something about eyes. There’s something about lips. There’s something about noses. I love drawing jawlines and different shadows on the face. I love drawing those little lines that you get underneath the eye that everyone thinks are bags, but no, they’re not. No, no. They’re not bags. Everyone has them. They’re little unique markers underneath the eye. I love drawing faces because faces are so important. Faces are people. Because of how in my shell I was, I wasn’t able to see the faces of people. So, I love meeting new people, but not in an extroverted way. In no way am I extroverted, lol. I just love seeing new faces. That’s why I like traveling. I just like seeing new faces in general. I like seeing people from different cultures. I like seeing the different facial features and everything like that. I really love faces. I feel like I was deprived of them for a very long time.

But, I really wanna thoroughly answer that question of what would I tell young people. I feel like that’s deeply important. All young people hope for is that they will get through what they’re enduring, and they will get through this. They will.