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Skin in the city: dealing with acne in NYC

Aug. 29, 2017
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My best friend, sister, and I had spent months planning a trip to NYC. Recently, my friend had rented an apartment on the Upper East Side, and we planned to stay in her new place, go shopping, and just spend some much needed time together. As we finally got the details arranged, and all were excited to spend a weekend in the city, I woke up to the worst acne of my life. It was a classic case of period acne, but worse: cystic, itchy, red acne that seemed to double as the days went on. In a naive attempt to clear my skin, I began picking at it (a bad habit I’ve possessed for years). Not only did this make the acne worse, but it left me with bad scarring.   

Here I was, days before a trip I’d been excited about for months, and I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to show my face in public.

The morning we were supposed to leave, I spent a significant amount of time trying to make my skin look as normal as possible: piling on creams, concealers, and powders until my face looked cakey and dry. Somewhere between the bus ride and the walk to my friend’s apartment, my makeup seemed to slip off my face, leaving it even more itchy and irritated than before. Disappointed and angry with myself for letting my skin reach this point, I washed off all my face makeup,  looked in the mirror, and held back tears. We had plans to head into Soho that day, grab some lunch, and go shopping. Standing in front of that mirror, I realized I had two choices: I could let my skin ruin my trip, or I could hold my head high and carry on with my day. 

While body confidence is a heavily discussed topic online, confidence in your own skin (literally) seems to be swept under the rug. Although dealing with acne is definitely a first world problem, it is difficult to show your insecurities and “imperfections”—especially in a city full of people. I believe there is nothing wrong with wearing makeup: at that point, I had relied on makeup for years to help me feel more confident, and I had recently even discovered a passion for it. But my reliance on makeup had reached a point where I couldn’t leave the house without it. And I was sick of caking on products that eventually just left my skin in a worse state than before.

So I stepped outside, bare-faced, knot in my stomach. It was uncomfortable at first, as my mind raced with “What are people going to think of me?” and “What if someone says something?” I looked at each NYC resident’s seemingly perfect skin with envy and frustration. But all in all, I got through the day without receiving a single negative glance, nor did I hear anyone whispering or laughing about me. In hindsight, I have to wonder: what did I think would happen? Did I think the commuters on the G train would laugh and point at me over their morning coffee? That the waiter at the overly expensive restaurant would offer me some acne advice? That the Starbucks barista would refuse to serve me a latte because my skin looked bad? This situation made me realize that my worst critic is myself. Sure: billboard ads, commercials, TV shows, movies, and magazines portray clear skin as the “norm”—something everyone needs to attain in order to be seen as beautiful. But sometimes acne is out of our control, and it's up to us whether we will let unrealistic societal expectations about our appearances affect us. 

What I realized was that the busy city of NYC couldn’t give less of a damn about my skin, because we’ve all been there. 

It isn’t often that I see people criticize or make fun of someone for having acne as most of us are all too familiar with the feeling of skin that’s acting up. Even pictures of celebrities, who seem to always have clear skin, are airbrushed, photoshopped, and retouched. Also, I’m willing to bet that even that person you know with the most flawless skin you’ve ever seen has woken up to a zit or two one morning. There’s no reason to beat yourself up over something as trivial as acne, or to let yourself be limited by preconceived notions of what people may think of you. One of the worse things you could do for yourself is to let your insecurities hinder you.

I wanted to walk around NYC bare-faced to prove to myself that my imperfections are not debilitating. Not only was this experiment an eye-opening experience in recognizing just how privileged I am to have my biggest concern be my skin, but it allowed me to feel more confident in the person I am on the inside. And maybe, if I’m lucky, it will inspire other people to do the same—because if I can order $14 avocado toast with a face full of acne, anyone can. We hold the power in our own hands: will we learn to love our imperfections or let them tear us down? Personally, I’m picking the former, because the sexiest thing you can be is confident because of your “flaws”—not despite them.