Ten years ago, if you were to ask me to open up about my deepest insecurity, I would have stared at you incredulously—because my deepest insecurity was clearly mapped across my face in angry red clusters. My battle with acne began at 14, and would go on to drastically threaten my emotional well-being for the next 12 years of my life.
"Summer break is over. Just met school friends. We all seem to have come back with one thing in common: Pimples!"
At that age, I knew I only had puberty to blame for my acne and it never bothered me, mostly because my friends were in the same hormonal boat. Sadly, just a year later I was steering all by myself. That’s when the stray comments about my skin turned into a steady flow. Sometimes I think it wasn’t even the facial bumps that traumatised me, but people’s reaction to them. It’s funny how everyone seemed to suddenly have attained a PhD in dermatology—people I didn’t know would find it appropriate to send me home remedies and recommend doctors, completely unsolicited. From eating raw bitter gourd to applying sea salt, I thought I had heard everything. Then my friend’s mother recommended dabbing my acne with cow’s urine. Gross.
"I am now officially that girl with the terrible acne; it feels like it's become my identity."
I didn’t want my troubled skin to define me. That’s when my actual fight began. I started to experiment with different topical products,
like Clean & Clear and Proactiv, reading labels and tirelessly researching the function of every skincare ingredient. By 15, I had a watertight CTM routine that I followed day and night with almost military discipline. Everything seemed to work for a month, and then it didn’t. Next, I went professional. I got multiple rounds of peels, and also microdermabrasion to ensure my acne didn’t leave any scars. I would tell my friends I was going for “facials”.
"Mum and dad sense my humiliation every time someone brings up my acne. They're ready to do anything and spend any amount of money to help me. I feel bad that a thing like this is burning a hole in their pockets."
My self-esteem was completely shot by this time. At my lowest, I refused to meet people, I would get dressed in the dark, and I actively avoided brightly-lit rooms out of fear of being exposed to everyone’s eyes. I even remember having the genius idea of hiding the boils on my forehead under a veil of bangs. Of course, that only aggravated them.
Then, during the summer of 2008, I thought I had cracked the code when I stumbled upon my grandmother’s ancient book of home remedies. I learnt that honey is an anti-bacterial, ice soothes redness, and if you grind oatmeal well enough, it turns into a decent scrub. I added it to my already elaborate skincare routine of topical creams, dermatologist treatments, because I figured the acne wouldn’t stand a chance against their combined force. Wrong again.
"First year at university and I need a new profile picture for Facebook. So glad dad knows how to Photoshop! ;)"
By the time I turned 18, the acne had been staying dormant for months at a stretch, but the scars were still being mistaken for pimples and continued to elicit unwelcome attention. But now my mom allowed me to wear make-up. Using concealer or foundation gave me a sense of control and made me feel confident like I’d never known before. It’s only now, in retrospect, that I realise it quickly became my crutch for all social situations, runs to the grocery store included. This continued till I moved to UK for my undergrad. Although my skin was marginally well-behaved, I never stepped out without a full face of make-up. I had mastered doing the perfect ‘no-make-up’ make-up look in under 15 minutes, but a part of me was growing weary.
My epiphany came more than a year into my course—when from a moment of sheer laziness, I once stepped out of home without concealer. I felt naked and exposed at first, but very soon I realised that none of my classmates or friends even noticed the difference. In fact, my best friend unknowingly complimented my radiant-looking skin. I still had breakouts and scarring, but knowing that she didn’t notice them gave me the confidence to perceive my skin differently. I realised that when I filtered others’ voices, and focused on myself and my needs, I started feeling more comfortable in my own skin.
In time, I was able to look at the experience and see not just what it took away, but what it brought to me too. My acne fuelled my love for skincare and make-up, which was what made me consider a career as a beauty journalist. At 23, I felt confident enough to do make-up tutorials on video, in spite of suffering from cystic acne around my jawline and neck. Unfortunately, trolls—behind their computer or in real life—exist. But, call it maturity, or the years spent building a thick skin, now, only one opinion mattered: mine. I focussed on narrowing down what worked and didn’t work for me. Once my hormones were in balance, I eliminated foods that irritated my skin (red meat and shellfish), and invested in good skincare products. Now, at 26, I still get the occasional zit when Aunt Flo visits, but I never let it control me the way it did in the past. Instead of concealing it, I go to work barefaced, and I own it.