For most women, there's usually one main aspect of their physical appearance that is prioritized above the rest, and it differs from woman to woman.* Maybe it's your hair--keeping it glossy and straight, bouncy and curly. Maybe it's your weight--staying toned and fit, losing those last couple pounds. Maybe it's your clothing--always being put together in the latest fashion. Maybe it's your teeth--making sure they are white as can be. Maybe it's your nails--colored and buffered at all times. Maybe it's your height--wishing you were shorter or taller. And so on. It could be anything, no matter how realistic. Whatever the case, it's the part of you, appearance-wise, that when kept a certain way, makes you feel happy and gorgeous and in control even if everything else is falling apart.
And when it isn't kept up, when your hair is a messy ball of frizz, when you can see those nightly desserts showing up on your hips, when you wear the same outfit for the millionth time, when your tooth gets a chip or a stain, when your nails are plain, when you can't do a damn thing about whatever it is that you think should be a certain way . . . I'm guessing you feel bad. Less than. Imperfect. Small. Out of control. Not good enough.
For me, that "thing" is a clear complexion.
Good skin is the epitome of beauty to me; it equals effortless beauty and shining health and perfection. I maintain a powerful envy for women who never wear a stitch of makeup and look great, and I continually strive to be that way too. It doesn't help that the Internet (1.6 million hits on Google) and magazines constantly tote tricks of having "good" skin, nor the fact that in today's Instagrammed world, there's always a filter making everyone look their best.
I've been lucky enough to have pretty good skin over the years, minus a bout of acne throughout high school and into college. (Truth be told, I'm sure the latter was a direct result of too much pizza and beer in the dorms.) I experienced a long stretch of time where I didn't really worry about my skin. I wore makeup to cover up old acne scars or flares of pimples, and because makeup is fun and makes me feel confident, but I didn't really need a whole lot of it.
Until I moved to Des Moines, where I've encountered more and more problems with my skin. My job is much more stressful than any job I've had in the past, and so perhaps that has been part of it over the past year or so. It's a vicious cycle -- when I feel like my skin is "bad," I get stressed out, which leads to more breaking out, more makeup to try to cover it up, etc. Having a "bad" skin day is like having a "fat" day for me (a lot of women will get what I mean); it's when I don't want to leave the house, see or talk to anybody until it passes and I feel (and look) better. This pattern has resulted in about a year of constantly worrying about my skin, if it looks "good" or "bad" and what I can do to keep it on the "good" side as much as possible. Overall, if my skin was clear, I felt good about myself. But if it wasn't, sometimes my entire day was ruined as I raced to cover up or hurry away the feared breakout.
Recently, I tried a bit of Retin-A at my best friend's house. She has beautiful, clear skin, and I wanted to be right there with her. The first few times, I had no problems. My skin looked a little clearer and smoother the next day. Then I made a big mistake. You see, the key rules of Retin-A are: after you wash your face at night, wait 20-30 minutes before applying, and only use a pea-sized amount. I forgot to do both these things; I put on about a dime size amount right after washing my face before bed, and ended up with patchy, extremely dry skin that led to a few raw areas on my face. Moisturizer only helped a little, and makeup made it look worse. Overall, not attractive, and even a little painful.
I immediately felt anxiety and stress appear. I wanted to wear a paper bag to work, and hide from my loved ones. I felt distracted, constantly thinking about how terrible I looked and if everyone was thinking about it. At one point, I even wondered if the barista at Starbucks would look at me and think, "Oh my god, she looks ugly." I worried that my boyfriend would love me a little less. And I wanted to throw up a disclaimer to everyone I saw: "I had a reaction to some new face stuff! It wasn't my fault!"**
I felt ashamed by my "bad" skin. I felt like bad skin = bad me. The thoughts came fast and loud: You suck. You failed. You're supposed to look perfect, don't you know? You're not pretty if you don't have good skin. You're supposed to be in control; it's your fault that your face now has some flaws. You're not--wait for it--worthy. Of anything. Of anyone. Of even enjoying this day.
WHOA. What a jerk, right?
It made me want to cry. Lately, I've felt a lot of peace and self-acceptance in terms of my body and appearance, but I realized how quickly I could still associate my self-worth with the way that I looked. I couldn't believe that a breakout had led to such negative thoughts and such a powerful sense of shame. I thought about how I would treat a friend who thought she/he had "bad" skin. First of all, I probably wouldn't notice and dissect their appearance in the first place. Most of things we critique about ourselves aren't really that obvious or horrible to anyone around us; it's usually in our head. Second, I would never, ever, ever talk to him/her the way I would talk to myself. I would try to be loving and encouraging and supportive. I would remind him/her that real life doesn't have pretty filters, and that's okay, even awesome. I'd say, "Hey, you don't have to be perfect. It's just a bad skin/hair/outfit day. Try to let it go. You're still loved. You're still you."
I mean, of all the things in the world to spend my mental energy on, was I really going to devote it to a few days of spots on my face?
So I worked hard to let it go. No matter what the media says, "good" skin does not make me or anyone else a "good," beautiful person. It doesn't make me perfect, and I don't need to be "perfect" in the first place. It doesn't affect my worthiness as an individual nor does it change who I am. I reminded myself that this was just a temporary flare-up, and soon my skin will go back to normal (and remembered how lucky I am to not have recurring complexion issues nor any sort of skin disease). I decided to cool it on any new face treatments for now, no matter how trendy, and made an appointment with a dermatologist to make sure I'm not dealing with an infection or major irritation.
And then I said to myself, "Hey, you don't have to be perfect. It's just a bad skin day. Try to let it go. You're still loved. You're still you."
*(Disclaimer: this post is likely relevant for some men, too, but I've experienced more discussion with women about similar issues, so that's the place I'll speak from. Second disclaimer: this is obviously a first-world, middle-class sort of problem. Not speaking of behalf of all women by any means.)
**Was I being a ridiculous drama queen or what?