When I was a teenager, I had acne. Not a few pimples that sporadically appeared, sprinkling my face like demented freckles, but real acne that covered my face like fire ants. My acne had presence; it refused to be concealed. My acne was a Seurat masterpiece, pointillism at its finest. My acne gave me character — well, that’s not quite true. More like my acne made me develop character, because a teenager with acne is little more than a teenager with ACNE. My acne made my face public property. It was an instant conversation starter, it gave perfect strangers the right — no, more like the need — to advise and counsel me. It made me approachable, and God, did I hate being approachable.
I first started getting acne at eleven. It reminded me of the chicken pox, but unlike the chicken pox, it didn’t itch. And at eleven, not itching made acne infinitely superior to the chicken pox. At first, I didn’t notice the pimples colonizing my face like over-eager conquistadors, stripping it of its mystery. I may not have noticed my acne when I was eleven, but I sure noticed it at twelve. Because at twelve, I went through a metamorphosis. I became a butterfly on rewind, devolving into a caterpillar. At twelve, I became ugly.
I was ugly in a quiet way. My ugliness never took up space or caused people around me discomfort, the way an obese woman passionately proclaiming that she loves food does. It was the kind of ugly that makes people assume you have a good personality, even when you don’t. It was the kind of ugliness that turned my doctors into false prophets, proclaiming, “Your acne will be gone in a month, in a year, by the time you go to college, by the time you have children.” My ugliness was the kind of ugliness that strangers could relate to: “When I was a kid, I had the worst acne, kind of like yours, but not so bad, and look at me now.” It was the kind of ugliness that will never be laughed at, because there is something infinitely unfunny about acne. You can’t make it into a joke. Believe me, I’ve tried. It will never be remembered as just part of your awkward years:
“I had pink braces, a Hello Kitty retainer and my sneakers played music when I walked,” she said.
“Hahaha,” we responded.
“I wore goggles to school and had a Beatles-inspired bowl cut,” he said.
“Hahaha,” we responded.
“I had the worst acne. It covered my face like poison ivy and didn’t go away for nine years. It was hilarious,” I would say.
“I’m so sorry, that must have been so hard for you. If you ever want to talk about it, we’re here,” they would respond.
What I do remember about the acne years, more of a decade, really, is going to a party where a boy, who in my mind has morphed into a more asinine version of Justin Bieber, was taking pictures of all the pretty girls. He was about to take my picture, until I looked up and he saw my face or, more realistically, until I looked up and he saw the acne that covered it like Christmas lights. Instead of a photo, something that seemed strangely desirable at the time, I got a “never mind.” I remember thinking that would be funny in a year or two when I no longer had acne. It was not. Because in a year or two, I still had acne.
What I do remember is sobbing in the parking garage of a Beverly Hills dermatologist when my mom refused to let me go on Retin-A. Retin-A had taken on mystical proportions in my mind. Retin-A would not only solve my acne problems — it would solve all my problems. It would turn me from a punch-drinking teenager on the sidelines of life to an unnaturally flexible dancer; it would remove the B+ I had gotten in ninth grade French from my report card; it would fill in the section of my eyebrow I had accidentally cut off.
What I do remember is praying to a God that I wasn’t sure I even believed in every night for nine years to please get rid of my acne. If he would remove my acne I would, and I quote, “be a nicer, kinder and better person.”
My mother will tell you that I was never ugly and my father will tell you I really have grown into my nose. My sister will laugh and my therapist will tell you that my self-perception has never recovered. But I will tell you the truth. Well, at least the truth as I remember it. And what I know is that having acne stays with you like PTSD. It doesn’t matter how good my skin has gotten, because a woman who used to have acne is little more than a woman who used to have ACNE.