I cured my acne and, in a weird way, I miss it

When I was 10, I spent the 20-minute bus ride to school every morning fantasizing about what I would look like when I was 16. I wouldn’t have to wear eclectic outfits thrown together from hand-me-downs and discount retailers, I’d have a boyfriend, and most importantly, I’d be beautiful. What I didn’t account for was acne. And a lot of it. Boys liked me OK, and that felt good, but it was a temporary fix. Because at the end of the day, I felt ugly.

So I spent the 30-minute period of Sustained Silent Reading every day fantasizing about what I would look like when I was 21. I wouldn’t have to wear eclectic outfits thrown together from discount retailers, I’d have a boyfriend, and most importantly, I’d be beautiful.

Is dreaming of being beautiful anti-feminist?

I am 22 now, and recently did a three-month course of Accutane (a super powerful prescription acne medication with a lot of potential scary side effects). For years I tried every over-the-counter acne spot treatment, face wash, Proactiv knock-off, and birth control pill, even shelling out $80 on face wash and toner from Sephora, but nothing worked quite the same way as Accutane did. In general, I’ve been deliriously happy about how clear my skin has become. But recently, I’ve started feeling a little guilty. I recognize that I have for years now benefited from some beauty privilege, fitting into a pocket of society’s narrow definition of conventional beauty as a thin, light-skinned Asian woman with long dark hair. I wasn’t sure how comfortable I was with that. But I knew that my acne was one thing that grounded me and placed me outside the gates of ultimate ~*~conventional beauty~*~. (Can you tell that by now I’ve taken a handful of Women’s Studies courses in college?)

I’ve always wanted to challenge beauty standards, so last December, I decided to chop off my long hair. It was finally long enough to cover my boobs, which is a quality I’d coveted since the sixth grade after seeing Christina Aguilera’s Stripped album cover. Culturally, a woman with long hair is seen to be feminine, beautiful, and sexy, whereas a woman with short hair may be labeled as either a lesbian or recently dumped (as if either are an insult). I was tired of playing along. I decided I didn’t want to be pretty. Or at least, not the pretty the media tells me to be.

Around this same time I had gone off of hormonal birth control pills and was using a non-hormonal IUD. The acne I had suffered from since middle school got WAY worse. I felt really insecure, and sometimes I’d look at myself in the mirror and almost cry. Eventually, in a fit of frustration and exhaustion, I told myself that I would own my acne, because that was so punk rock.

This punker acne attitude didn’t last, and I was really upset with the way that I looked, which lead to me being upset about being upset about the way I looked. In the end, I decided to go on Accutane, something I had always casually considered but was too lazy to start the long process for. I know compared to others, my acne wasn’t horrible or disfiguring. But it was something that I was unhappy with and had been dealing with since I was about 11. At this point, I was 21 (basically a GROWN WOMAN) and exhausted from dealing with acne. (And I have to give credit to the level of conspiracy going on, given that the entire adult population could come together, create, and maintain the myth that acne goes away once you are no longer a teen.)

In the three months that I was on Accutane, I had a slew of side effects—some normal and just inconvenient, and others even more inconvenient and a little worrisome. Things like dry skin, dry lips, dry eyes, dry everything; nose bleeds, joint pain, bloating, constipation, abnormal menstruation, etc. Not to mention the threat of ulcerative colitis and chronic vaginal and urinary tract infections. But at the end of the three months, my skin was completely clear! For the first time, I felt comfortable in my skin, which was an incredible feeling.

Then I started seeing blog posts, YouTube videos, and Lorde and Tavi’s #acnecream selfies where people were accepting their acne and breakouts in a very honest and cheeky way. Right away, I felt inspired: “Yeah, acne! Woohoo!” But then I got a slightly sinking feeling as I realized I couldn’t really participate in that anymore. I started feeling guilty, like I had sold out my ideals and put my body through hell—and for what, clear skin? I started wondering: Am I silly? Am I vain? Was all this pain I caused my body worth it?  Why do I want to be beautiful? What is beauty? Who am I doing this for? Who cares?

It may seems silly and trivial, but these are the questions I’ve been grappling with, because I sort of mourned the loss of my acne. I probably sound like a brat for saying that, but whatever. I mourned the loss of an identity that I had felt was so much a part of me for many years—that of the ugly duckling/weirdo/underdog. And, even if just in my mind, I had felt connected to a group of people who also identified in the same way. I wondered if I had betrayed them. Had I become like Kate Sanders who abandoned her best childhood friends Lizzie and Miranda the moment she became pretty and popular? (Lizzie McGuire reference, obviously.) It felt like shedding and letting go of adolescence. And maybe I wasn’t ready for that quite yet.

In the interest of full disclosure, after three of what was supposed to be a five-month treatment, my dermatologist decided it would be best to take a break from the Accutane to see if my more concerning side effects (gastrointestinal and menstrual) would clear up. They did. After an almost two-month break, we discussed if and how we would like to move forward with the treatment. My skin was still clear, but there was no telling if that would last. She told me that patients who don’t finish a full course of Accutane are more likely to see a relapse in their acne. She suggested taking one more month of medication at a very low dose and that we would stop treatment right away if any side effects returned. Almost immediately after returning to Accutane, I had an awful period that lasted nine days, got sick, and had a UTI that lasted for weeks. I’d had enough. It became clear to me that having a nice complexion was not worth risking my health or the damage it had done to my bank account. I stopped my treatment.

This She’s All That experience has taught me that it’s OK for me to think I look good. I also think that it’s OK for me to admit to wanting to be pretty. It doesn’t make me a bad person, and it definitely doesn’t make me any less of a feminist. But I think it’s good for me to question and think about these things so I don’t take them for granted and I acknowledge my privilege. I think the best way for me to challenge beauty standards is to set and live up to my own. I haven’t completely resolved my feelings with acne and beauty, but I think it’s OK that I still feel these contradictions.

For a while after stopping Accutane, I was extremely paranoid about my acne returning. I’ve had some small pimples here and there, nothing major. But if my acne does come back, I’ll be ready this time. Not with spot treatments and medicinal herbs, but with self-love and perspective. Now I know that the same way pretty doesn’t have to mean long hair, pretty also doesn’t have to mean clear skin.

Diana Le is a writer of creative nonfiction, recent college grad, and all-around Lost Girl living in Seattle trying to find an OK job. She enjoys audio commentaries, mac and cheese pizza and the High School Musical trilogy. You can follow her on Twitter @_dianale.

(Image via Shutterstock.)