The stigma of acne must go

Caitlin Beard

Acne, though an extremely common skin condition affecting over 3 million Americans each year, has yet to be accepted in the media. In most cases, a model with acne is the “before” photo in a skincare ad. Occasionally, acne is seen in movies and television on an archetypal “nerd,” usually accompanied with glasses and braces. Limited representation of acne has left the impression that it is a shameful condition inconsistent with beauty standards. For years, the media has broadcasted models with smooth and flawless skin, often refined through editing. Many media consumers are unaware that photos have been edited, further stigmatizing acne because it appears that the models embodying ideal beauty standards do not struggle with any skin conditions. This artificial practice has created an unrealistic societal expectation that our skin must look like that too. The culture of self-hatred about acne is toxic and reinforced by the media’s made-up facade that everyone has perfect skin, and anyone who does not is simply a “before” or a social reject.

Cutanea Life Sciences, Inc., a dermatology-focused company, surveyed 1,010 teenagers in 2017 from ages 15-19 in the U.S. and saw a significant correlation between acne and lowered self-esteem, especially in relation to social media. Seventy-one percent of participants reported that acne had affected their self-image, and 68 percent believed that their peers edit their photos on social media to hide their acne. Also, half of the teens said that social media makes them feel more sensitive about their acne. These statistics exemplify the pressures social media projects onto teens to look flawless for their peers online. Hiding acne in photos of models and celebrities and teens’ pictures further gives a consumer the phony impression that blemished skin is shameful. 

In a similar study, Stephanie M. Gallitano, M.D. and Diane S. Berson, M.D. at the Dermatology Research Departments of Columbia and Cornell University compiled studies from various scientists over 10 years to show the extent of the effect of acne on self-esteem. One study in 2011 included in the compilation stated that suicidal ideation for acne patients might be two to three times more likely than that of people who have never been affected by acne. Furthermore, in a 2012 study, 89.3 percent of patients with severe acne admitted to feeling embarrassed with a decreased self-esteem due to their skin condition. 

Fortunately, in light of the contempt surrounding acne, influencers have begun creating platforms to spread acne positivity. One significant acne blogger, Em Ford, has made important strides in challenging deeply rooted beauty standards and has already started paving the way towards redefined beauty on her blog “MyPaleSkin.” In 2015, Ford posted a YouTube video titled “You Look Disgusting,” publicizing the horrific Instagram comments she received in response to her bare face, exposing her acne, as well as the positive feedback in response to photos of her wearing makeup. The video has garnered more than 34 million views, bringing light to the widely accepted notion that acne cannot be beautiful. In an interview she did with beauty magazine Marie Claire in 2019, Ford attributed her constant anxiety to social media brands’  unrealistic beauty standards. 

Other main-stream celebrities, most notably Kendall Jenner, have started showing their support for the acne positivity movement. Jenner walked the red carpet at the 2018 Golden Globes Award ceremony with acne visible on her cheeks. On her social media, she made a public statement asserting her self-confidence regardless of her acne. Seeing how Jenner is known to uphold the epitome of beauty standards while still struggling with her skin has inspired a growing number of fans to join the positivity movement. Posting pictures of acne on social media creates a safe space for people to feel solidarity in their skin conditions, lessening acne’s psychological effects. In an article from the British Broadcasting Corporation, author Radhika Sanghani said after seeing acne-positive messages all over her social media, she has noticed a change in her mindset and, as a result, much less insecurity and anxiety about her acne. 

 A common perspective regarding acne’s representation in the media is that it should not be normalized or portrayed as beautiful because some people want to treat and cure it. However, acne does not invalidate beauty. Those who decide to seek professional treatment for their acne are motivated by purely cosmetic reasons, as no real threats come with untreated acne. According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, the main reasons to get acne treatment are to avoid permanent scarring and dark spots and to prevent more severe breakouts. In other words, the only effects of acne are cosmetic and psychological. 

For the 80 percent of Americans who have acne at some point in their lives, more positivity circulating the media is needed to help people’s emotional trauma because of an unnecessary stigma that degrades self-esteem. As more influencers join the acne positivity movement, the bias that acne invalidates beauty will fade, allowing everyone to revisit how they think about this prevalent skin condition. I have had acne on-and-off for the last three years, and when my skin flares up, my self-esteem plummets. One thing I know would have helped me validate my beauty is seeing acne in the media as what it is; extremely common and not something to be regarded as shameful.