Rumor has it that if you go in front of the mirror, stare at your face all the time, do a close-up look of your cheeks and say “acne” three times, you will spot a new pimple.
I don’t mean to scare you but it has actually happened to me. The first time I got a pimple, to my latest one, I have followed this ritual and ended up finding pimples in places I couldn’t find had I not obsessed over them. Then, of course, I pop them. I call them my “battle scars” because I got adult acne when I was jobless right after graduation, and that too for a good two years. Top it off with heartbreak, and you have a recipe for a lifetime of trauma manifesting as pimples, and some more.
The scars remind me of all the time I had to build a skincare routine, my armor from the inflictions of the expectations this world has on young graduates.
Excuse me while I wash my face with my tears in hope that maybe this would be the cure. Crying is not the fountain of eternal youth, as I believed. My acne got worse. And as I grew up, I lost my hair. But that’s a story for another day. Right now we’re talking about the cute little friends I made in these years that became so attached to me that I would spend hours staring at them. They’re not pretty, but are they?
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Anyhow, as anyone with previously baby-smooth skin would, I freaked out when I started breaking out with acne the sixth month into my “time off.”
I would cry to my family, my friends, and my followers about how my life is ruined because I have a new pimple popping up every day. And I would pop that popping pimple like it was my bully from the playground who won’t let me have fun. I would spend at least half an hour on each pimple trying to ooze out the last bit of pus as if a demon was residing in my face, and if I didn’t exorcise it, I would be damned.
I let acne make me believe I was less than I am. In that time, I became obsessed with skincare products for my acne. Specifically Korean skincare products.
The internet touted a lot of those products as magic treatments for acne. So I thought I could go on this magical journey too. It would be my fairytale! Little did I know, this is not a fairy tale where Pegasus comes swooping in and takes me to a land of promises where I feel beautiful. It went more like this: I would order skincare products online worth thousands of rupees every month, hope they would work, and when they didn’t, I ordered more. I became a blackhole sucking every product I could find, and in the process sinking all the money down the drain.
It did not feel magical at all. But I did get scolded a lot by my parents for “wasting” so much money in the name of “research for beauty” so I guess whatever excitement I had about taking this journey ended right then and there. I could have bought an iPhone. Ugh.
But the journey did not end. After about eight months of experimentation, and passing a professional exam that made me feel like I could conquer the world now, my acne started getting in control.
I found a skincare routine that worked for me, started an internship where my research would later get published internationally, and I started making enough money to order skincare on my own. Even with all of that, I didn’t feel beautiful. I just wanted to be pretty. Why was nothing working?
Sometime after, I managed to tame my acne a bit and had enough time to sit with my thoughts and figure out why I felt so ugly, I thought about what I consumed when it came to forming my beliefs about how I should see myself. We are constantly bombarded with images of perfect lives and perfect skins online. From YouTubers to influencers to even friends who post the perfect pictures, with their smooth skins and aesthetically pleasing lives. I wanted that, ignoring the fact that I just might already have had all of it. This is what having acne did to me. It made me ungrateful and ignorant.
See, acne is not just simply a layer of gunk and bacteria caught under you skin. Acne crawls under your skin in ways you don’t see it happening.
When I got acne, I was already in a bad place. My body was just reacting to the stress. As time passed and even after my circumstances got better, my acne did not. I was so hung up on how my acne made me feel, that I started defining myself through my scars and pimples. Of course it didn’t help that my grandmother would comment on my face every time I would go meet her, and that she would recommend new tips and tricks to help me deal with it. My Instagram became all about my feelings about acne. I was obsessed with my face and perfecting it. I had given my acne enough time to slowly take over my thoughts. I had become my acne: invasive, depressing, and painful.
I needed to get out of it.
The first thing I did was stop popping my pimples. As satisfying as it is, I was aware that this also leads to the spread of bacteria that increases acne. Secondly, I stopped buying a lot of skincare products. I researched on what would work, and slowly started building a new routine with just the basics. A salicylic face wash, anti-oxidant serums, a chemical exfoliant, a good moisturizer and sunscreen. I then forced myself to give away the rest of my skincare products and stick to one basic routine.
I needed to ground myself. It wasn’t just about skincare anymore. It was about how I treated myself.
The confusion I felt towards my body was manifested in the constant impulse buying of new skincare products. I told myself it was okay. I am more than my acne. It wasn’t easy. But I had to remind myself of the things I loved about myself apart from how I looked. For a previously fat kid who lost all the weight late in life and then became an accidental model, it was hard to isolate my self worth from my looks. I had seen how people swooned over good looking people. But I also saw that a good personality was what made people swoon more than looks.
At my internship, I could see pretty people and pretty souls co-exist. I could see unprettiness as it should be seen; something under the skin and not on it. It was when I entered the real world, got out of my head and learned to become someone I wanted to be that I realized how superficial my thoughts towards myself had been. I had been too hard on myself for all the wrong reasons. My face was just that, my face. The internet had been wrong. The internet is not everything. Instagram is not the answer. What’s the point of aesthetics if it’s all a façade?
I then started forgiving my skin for being imperfect.
As soon as I started the process of forgiveness, I realized everything changed in how I was approaching my acne. By now I was self aware that when I was popping my pimple, I was seeking some sort of control over my life that I had previously lacked. When I was telling off my acne, I was telling myself off for not being good enough to find a place in this world. When I was impulse buying skincare products, I was looking for meaning in the wrong places, places I should never have ran through. Had I just slowed down, and taken things in the strides they were supposed to be taken in, constant comparison and an aesthetic yearning would not have made me identify myself through my apparent flaws.
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Now, my acne is there. I still get those painful cystic pimples (one pimple a month) but I have learned to let it be, as I have learned to let life be. It hurts, sometimes a lot, but the pain goes away too. Acceptance is key.
How we see ourselves is heavily a reflection of how we live our lives. Self care is more than just a ten-step skincare routine and face masks. It is that and so much more. So now, when I go masking, I go with an intention to be my best self, be my best skin, and not with the mindset that tells me to hide my flaws.
I have stopped going in front of the mirror and staring at it long enough to say “acne” three times and get another pimple. I just have acne. Saying out loud doesn’t change anything.
I have shattered the mirror.
This post was submitted by Haseeb Sultan. You can find him here.
Cover image via @haseebsultan_/Instagram