Before looking at the mirror every morning, I‘d steel myself: how many zits would I have this time, and — the ultimate horror — would there be nasty, pus-filled bumps that would catch people’s attention before the rest of my face?
This went on for the entirety of my teenage years and even longer, from when I got my first breakout at nine years old(!) up until now in my 20s. One could say that this is a near-universal human phase in a society that’s bombarded with stress, processed food, and artificial chemicals, but the levels of angst vary. In my case, acne was a fact of life, a seemingly permanent feature of my face.
Our faces are just as much representations of our identity as our names, and acne shows up right there for everyone to see. We are recognized by our faces, whether in an intimate setting or amidst a crowded room. Even looking at someone right in the eye, the way that we most often show connection, involves taking in their overall face.
The psychological disadvantages of chronic acne are well-documented: low self-esteem, distaste toward one’s appearance, self-consciousness, bullying, a general drag on your mental health. Like the most basic features of the face — eye color, bone structure, curve of the smile— acne makes no valid statement about personality, but it becomes a part of us anyway.
A Quest for Beauty that Leads to Uniformity
Since dermatology clinics are businesses like any other, loyal customers will have experienced their fair share of business pitches. It stings a little more, though.
After my acne treatments, the facialist might whisper, “You have a few warts on the side of your face. Want to have them removed?” Body imperfections are endless, so it’s impossible to run out of ideas. If not warts, then wrinkles, lines on the forehead, hyperpigmentation, a bit of fat around the tummy.
The pursuit of self-improvement is natural, even healthy, and consistent with our basic desire for growth, but it runs the greatest risk of being compulsive when it comes to our bodies. For some reason, societies relentlessly gravitate towards a very specific idea of physical beauty. Here are some female-specific examples:
- I live in Southeast Asia, and there seems to be an obsession with whitening, from glutathione shots to scrubbing with bleach
- The most stereotypical modern ideal demands a slender figure with both a flat stomach and hourglass curves
- On the other hand, plumper women with full hips were revered during the Italian Renaissance, while an androgynous look — complete with short, boyish hair and flat breasts —reigned supreme in the West during the 1920s
Even though beauty standards shift dramatically throughout cultures and generations, they give off the impression of being fixed and imposing in the here and now, an absolute yardstick against which you ought to measure yourself.
In general, any devation is considered a body “imperfection,” as if every part of the body was meant to be examined and compared and likely found wanting. It’s rigged from the start because there’s one way to be right and infinite ways to be wrong; the ideal clashes with the sheer diversity of bodies that human beings can have, and it’s the ideal that wins. What is natural is, more often than not, perceived as undesirable.
In an extreme quest to match that ideal, we end up looking like each other — but never quite exactly the Photoshopped version of ourselves that we’re somehow driven to chase after.
The War Against Aging
A parallel trend is the rise of the “anti-aging” buzzword. It has gained the status of a magical label that’s tacked onto countless products and treatments, adding a bit of shine and luring in customers anxious to disguise that they’d rather not count their birthday candles.
From a biological perspective, growing old eventually involves the gradual loss of faculties and weakening of the body — all while bringing on unsightly wrinkles and spots, diminishing our sexual attractiveness, and rendering us wheezing with what used to be effortless. It’s as foreboding as our profoundly wired fear of death.
However, what we’ve lost sight of — as emphasized by “anti-aging” — is that aging isn’t an enemy that we need to take up arms against at all costs. Yes, it makes sense to lather on creams as a form of self-care and to satisfy a bit of vanity. Who doesn’t want to look good? Butthe prevailing attitude is that aging is out and absolutely undesirable; youth (or infantilization) is in, what we should strive for.
This shows up everywhere, including when older people are denied jobs because they’re stereotyped as inflexible and when becoming old is portrayed as the end of one’s life, when we supposedly become useless and sad and incapable of pleasure.
However, aging is also a social and psychological process, and the major flipside of aging is wisdom and maturity from accumulated experience. That’s not to say that all old people are wise — rather, they possess a different kind of perspective from younger people, and it’s very much worth listening to.
I had a professor who paused in the middle of class and suddenly held her hand up to the light. She said that she had wrinkles on her hand and gnarled fingers — signs of aging — but it doesn’t appall her at all. Rather, she was proud of it because these were markers of what she’d gone through, the years that shaped her to become who she was now.
Seeing Like an Artist
At home, we have a carved wooden box at home that’s meant to hold small jewelry. Geometric patterns are laid out all over, made of crookedly arranged triangles resembling shards of glass.
The triangles aren’t as uniform as they should be; they don’t even form a neat line. Beyond that, the wood itself is uneven and splotchy, with grooves and notches at random places, even tiny dents.
Touching it and holding it close, I know that it’s hand-made and not factory-produced. Even though it’s based on a model and there were plenty of other similar-looking boxes lined up alongside it, I identify it as unique because of the imperfections (or rather, aberrations), which show the humanity of whoever created it.
Likewise, a similar experience occurs when you look at the world from the perspective of a visual artist and try to draw someone. Nude drawing classes are notorious for attracting models who are confident about how their bodies look — after all, it takes a lot of vulnerability to be willing to show your body to an entire class of people who’ll be scrutinizing every detail while you freeze underneath the spotlight.
But it doesn’t matter what type of body the models have, what they look like. When trying to draw as accurately as possible, there’s this amazing state of mind where you stop thinking and become completely absorbed in the lines and silhouette and shading. Whatever you’re drawing, you become aware of how lovely it is.
Free from the grip of society’s beauty standards, it all inspires aesthetic awe: the folds on a belly, a flat chest, uneven eyebrows, saggy skin, scars on the back, every face and its character.
From the pure, honest eye of an artist, the beauty of everything shines through.
Beauty Beyond an Audience: Self-Care
Despite everything that I’ve said, I still go to my derma religiously every two weeks because I’d inevitably get a breakout if I don’t. I’ve squirmed my way through facials ever since I was twelve, and I lather on skin products on my face and body every morning and evening, including a face mask that has gained its own cult following. For all that I should be neutral, I still feel either distaste or satisfaction when I evaluate my own appearance.
Aside from the age-old desire to look good, raw self-expression, playing the social game, and capitalism urging us to buy more, perhaps beauty rituals are all the more prevalent now because they’re a widely accepted form of self-care when the clock is ticking faster than ever and we’re badly in need of rest.
Sleep can be wrongly guilt-inducing; entertainment can be criticized as a time-waster; beauty rituals receive their own fair share of judgment, but somehow you can justify its usefulness, explain that looking better can help you in your career and support you in your goal of being “successful.” What’s less stated is that they give you an excuse to slow down and carve out time for yourself. Amidst the hectic hustle-and-bustle of a typical day, slapping on a face mask for fifteen minutes serves as a breather, and there’s something soothing in giving yourself skin-to-skin contact, a tiptoe version of a massage.
Acne, a Decade Later
It’s been ten years since I got my first pimple, and until now, I still watch out for them in the mirror. At my worst, you could have fried an egg on my face; I was horrified at it, at myself, and my skin was rough wherever I touched it. At my best — when I took hormonal corrections for a short while — I looked vastly different, with clear skin, hardly any pimples, my eyes holding attention rather than a bulbuous zit on any other part of my face.
It was so unusual for me that I couldn’t help but stare at the mirror, struggling with the dissonance and feeling the slightest bit hollow. Because for all that I looked different — normal skin, a more confident stare, less shame — I was still very much the same person inside.
My acne vanishing wasn’t the magical wand that I expected it to be. Nothing essential had changed. Whatever my face looked like, I was still me with my anxieties, passions, failings, neurotic imaginings, loves.
At that moment, I saw like an artist and knew that the insecurity had always been a lie.