Dr. Alia Ahmed: There is No Definition for Normal Skin.

Dr. Ahmed is a psychodermatologist from the U.K. She shares her skin journey with us. 

Growing up, I experienced the usual acne many teenagers have. When I was 11 or 12, I had fringe bangs, and I remember coming out of school one day and pushing up my fringe. Suddenly, I felt all of these bumps on my forehead! I had no idea what was going on, and I thought there was something wrong with me. Although these little bumps were normal, I didn’t realize it, and this is when I began to internalize my feelings. So, I have very few memories from that time.

I can remember not wanting to go to school because of spots. I missed out on a friend’s performance at assembly, and she was really upset that I had not come to school. Although my absence was because of a spot, I told her that I was sick.

Throughout school, I kept my fringe bangs, and I was very strict about it. In all of my pictures from secondary school pictures, I have a fringe and appear very introverted. I had always been an introvert, but as time went on, I even began covering my face with my hand, especially when I talked. When I did this, people would ask me, “Why are you talking like that?”

I just wanted to cover my face. Given that, I was never beauty conscious or interested in how I looked - because to me, how I looked was a negative. I can remember not freaking about my acne because I thought - “Oh, I’m not that pretty anyways so acne can’t make it any worse...” I actually thought more about how my nose was shaped than acne. I didn’t like the fact that I had to wear glasses either, but I got used to it because it hid the spots on the sides of my nose. I had those old glasses that pushed down on the sides of your nose. They used to really hurt my spots, but I continued to press them closely to my face. I just wanted to make make sure that they were hiding my acne. 

I can also recall trying to use my aunt’s acne products to get rid of my spots rather than telling my mom to take me to the doctor, I didn’t think that acne was a medical problem young females could go and see the doctor about. I definitely have those memories, and I definitely remember struggling. I just remember being stressed.

Another thing that really bothered me was that I had always felt ugly from a very young age. My skin color is very similar to my Dad’s, and my mom is very fair. Lots of people would say to me - “It’s such a shame that you look like your Dad. It would have been better if you looked like your mom!” 

On top of that, I was stuck in between the beauty standards of two cultures. It was hard to balance the Western and Indian beauty standards because a lot of Indian beauty standards are around the concept of long, lustrous hair. But then, the Western standards at that time were more about layers or edgy hair cuts. It seems like you could never really please anyone. If you cut your hair, your grandmother was like - “What did you do that for?” But then, if you grew it too long, you weren’t seen as trendy by your peers. 

Then, when it came to makeup, Indian and Western beauty standards differed greatly as well. Lipsticks with dark undertones were really popular in the West, but according to Indian beauty standards, people were  like - “Why would you wear makeup that makes you look darker?” So, although a dark lipstick may have been in for the Western standard, lipsticks that made you look darker were a  problem within Indian beauty standards. Combined with having acne, this all really pushed my mental health. 

I wish I had gotten proper help at the time rather than distress myself about something like acne because it's treated fairly easily. Now, as a dermatologist, I think that all skin is normal, and I simply see skin as an organ that needs to be taken care of. For example, if someone has rosacea, I don’t like to think of that as a disease. I try to change my language. Were taught to say “disease.” We’re taught to say “suffers from acne” or “suffers from psoriasis.” But I try to say, “if that’s your skin, that’s normal.” We all have different skin journeys. Sometimes skin journeys can be symptomatic or impactful, but seeing a derm is up to you, and truly, there is no single  definition for “normal skin.”