Mirror, Mirror, On The Wall: The Woes of Adult Acne
In the grand scheme of things, I know that having adult acne is not the worst thing in the world, not by a million, million, million miles. There are stratospherically more important things going on at this very moment across the globe, both good and bad.
And yet, my frivolous obsession with my skin has defined so much of my conscious life. Now, in my mid-20s and still breaking out, the obsession is as strong as it’s ever been.
I’ve had acne for more than half of my life. An entire ten year period is defined by photographs that I can’t look at without zeroing in on the red and uneven glare of my face. In every one I can see the calculations of my younger self, angling this way and that to hide a multitude of sins (braces, short neck, bad skin). I know how she feels and I feel sorry for her, knowing that the consolation running through her head is that it can’t last forever.
“You’ll grow out of it,” my mum was always saying. I believed like a zealot that it would all be over by the time I was twenty, when I’d achieved the magical skin-healing zenith of adulthood.
I am now twenty-five. I’ll admit that my skin is not as bad as it used to be. These days I break out often but in certain areas rather than all over and it’s more sporadic, more controlled. On some wonderful days I don’t have any acne at all.
What does remain is the red rosiness to my face, the dents and grooves that are variously faded depending on how long they’ve been there. I know the map of my own face, where it’s at its worst, its best, its inbetween. The punctures on my temples. The denting near my dimples. A triangular scar on my cheek that’s been around so long it’s like an old friend.
The upshot of all of this is an unwanted vanity. I’m powerless against the need to catch my reflection in shiny surfaces, to rearrange my hair so that it covers my face. I’m constantly aware of how my skin – and my behaviour – might look to other people. “It’s not narcissism,” I want to tell them. “It’s fear.”
The curse of the adult with acne is a hyperawareness of others with the same problem and of people with perfect skin. On the one hand, noticing someone else who’s clearly got the same issue is like a comforting hand on your shoulder. There’s an instant camaraderie even if they never notice you looking. On the other, someone with a baby-soft face is like a hand twisting in your gut. Who won the genetic lottery? it says. Not you.
Adult acne is an attrition working away on bits of your life. From your bank account being regularly hit with the cost of primers, foundations, and concealers to the time it takes in front of the mirror in the morning, trying to work out how to cover up and stay natural, the little things build until you add your acne to the rest of the life baggage you’re carrying now that you’re a grown-up.
It’s true that the searing worry of a teenager dulls into the disappointment of an adult; but no matter how switched-on or sensible or concerned with the world you are, how aware you are of problems a million times more immediate than yours – this thing you should have left behind can’t fail to prey on your mind, even a little.