I still remember getting my very first pimple. I can’t quite recollect exactly what age I was (I think around 12), but I do recall that it felt positively cataclysmic. My skin, which had been perfectly unblemished till then, now had a huge, ugly red lump taking stage right in the middle of my nose.
It was devastating.
My parents dragged me out on an errand that arvo to stop me from moping miserably around the house – where, as luck would have it, we ran into some of their friends. I retreated quickly into the car. ‘Where’s Des going?’ they asked, as I skittered away. ‘Oh she’s just embarrassed about a pimple’ my Mum explained offhandedly.
I was almost in tears inside the car. Not only had Mum betrayed me by not making up a better excuse, but she was also being rather carelessly flippant about this whole catastrophe. Couldn’t she be more sympathetic over the fact that her only daughter was now hideous? Couldn’t she at least try to comfort me, now that I was going to live the rest of my life alone and unloved, instead of dragging me around to the local nursery to pick up worms for our compost bin?
Innocent little Des had no idea that things would only get worse from there. Or at least, worse for my skin. That pimple was only the start, a lone discoverer – the Edmund Hillary of my face – who’d then be followed by countless others.
But, as the acne became more commonplace, I became less awkward about it. So I didn’t have a clear complexion, whatever. I feel like you can only be precious about that for so long before you no longer have the energy or motivation to care. I could still do all the things I could do before, my friends still seemed to like me, nobody was pointing and laughing at my face, and I’d still, every now and then, get told I was pretty.
I’d never go so far as to say I actually liked having acne, or to pretend that it didn’t occasionally make me feel insecure or shy (especially when my skin was breaking out particularly badly, or the pimple was in a distinctly inopportune location). I would definitely much rather have just had perfect skin all my life.
But, having acne did teach me an important lesson. It helped me separate more of my self worth away from how I looked. Even when my face was flaring up, I’d still go dancing and would talk to people and wouldn’t feel ashamed or less competent.
I did lapse intermittently. I had mostly male friends growing up and not that many female friends, and every now and then my guy friends would talk about how pretty some girl was, and that girl would either have amazing skin or cover up all of her imperfections with make-up, and it would get to me. I’d go buy some foundation and concealer and try to cover up mine as well.
I was never very good at using make-up in the first place, which I guess was a blessing in disguise, but each time, for a few weeks, I’d stress about constantly reapplying and maintaining this illusion of having skin that had never been affected by hormonal changes.
But heaven forbid I start to sweat! Even waterproof makeup is not perfect. I had to avoid water fights in summer, couldn’t do pool parties, and if I went to the beach wearing make-up, I’d emerge out of the water like something out of a horror movie.
If I decided to go to the pool party anyway, sans make-up, I’d feel embarrassed and would try to hide my face as much as I could. Everyone expected me to look less pimple-y, and now they’d be able to see all those blemishes I’d been so carefully keeping covered. I felt like they’d know I was fake. Or that they wouldn’t like me. The idea of myself as attractive was again getting dependent on me either having good skin, or looking like I did.
I could never maintain it. It only ever lasted a few weeks, and then I’d give up. And each time, it felt so good once I’d gotten comfortable again with being in my own skin.
I really don’t think this is limited to acne – if you try to cover up your (real or perceived) faults and insecurities, you just give them power. Whereas if you’re open about them, people tend not to hold those things against you – and you realise that they aren’t what defines you.
Eventually I gave up on trying to cover my blemishes for good. It’s a decision I’m super happy I made, and that I wish I could go back in time and convince younger Des to do right from the start.
I’m not sure if you can actually convince people of these things or if they need to come to this realisation themselves, and grow into it.
I think it’s especially tough being a girl (only because there are a lot more of these expectations on women than on men), and extra-especially if you’re not naturally super pretty, with perfect skin and hair. You’re always bombarded with this idea of what you should aspire to be, and a lot of times, that’s a girl with blemishless skin and vibrant, luscious hair. It doesn’t stop there either – you’re told that you need to shape your eyebrows and curl your lashes and shave every part of your body except the top of your head so that you maintain a perpetual semblance of hairlessness.
I remember being so disappointed when in one of my favourite shows, Brooklyn 99, the female characters Rosa and Amy were expected to always be carrying make-up with them. These are badass cops and they’re awesome at their job. Why do they need to be wearing make-up all the time?!? Why are so many women in pop culture expected, as a matter of course, to unquestioningly adhere to these beauty standards?
And I know that it’s not all women everywhere who are expected to do this, but it is a lot of women, especially if you’re working in a corporate environment (where it’s considered professional) or working in hospitality (where you’re expected to look pretty all the time).
I honestly feel like it’s a form of oppression. It takes so much time and effort and money to keep it up. And I don’t just mean this as a form of oppression against women. It happens a lot more to women, but I’d still think it was awful even if guys were expected to do the same things.
This isn’t a rant against make-up itself. I have blue hair and wear bright red lipstick, and it’s fun, after being on a week long hike, to go get a pedicure with my (mostly male) friends. I’m not saying that it’s wrong to use make-up or that you’re a more insecure person if you do. But if my lipstick all rubs off (which it does frequently), I don’t feel like a lesser person without it, and I’m totally comfortable not having it on. What sucks is that a lot of people feel the need to maintain an illusion of perfection, and to cover up everything all the time.
It’s very fashionable these days to say ‘oh it’s your choice, and if make-up makes you feel more confident, then make-up is great and you should use it all the time!’ But imagine if in the future, when technology has improved, if everyone who wasn’t super skinny used some sort of holographic device to make themselves look like a size 6 model.
You’d think it was awful and shallow and you’d tell them that they need to learn to love themselves instead of trying to pretend to be something they’re not – and that they should have a broader definition of what constitutes beauty! And then you’d think about how awful all the little girls must feel when they see all of these perfect older women and think they have to grow up to look just like them, and are convinced that doing so is integral to having anyone love them.
That’s what we’re doing, on an admittedly much less extreme scale. We’re perpetuating these unrealistic ideals, and a lot of women only put in all of this time and effort and money into how they look because their self worth is tied to them meeting those beauty standards.
That is why using make-up to cover up their blemishes makes people feel more confident. It’s because society makes them feel like they don’t deserve to be that confident if they don’t look like that.
Be the change you seek
So, what do we do about this? What’s the point of my whole rant?
It’s untenable to expect people to stop caring about how they look – or at least, stop caring so much about how they look – without first creating the kind of society where they feel comfortable doing that. The kind of society where they don’t think they might be looked over for a job or promotion or considered unprofessional if they’ve got uncovered, blemished skin, or unshaven legs, or frizzy hair.
And how do we do that? We talk about it. We call out unrealistic beauty standards. We keep it in mind and try to spread that message through things we write and film and photograph and draw and create. We push for more characters in pop culture to be smart, funny, witty, resourceful, and not look like perfectly pretty little dolls.
We have protagonists with frizzy hair, and stories about people who don’t have time to shave because they’ve got more important things on their mind, and scenes in which characters don’t expect the women to have any make-up on them. And we start talking about ‘beauty’ in broader terms that aren’t predicated on this perpetual upkeep.
If you do feel comfortable enough, then go – even if it’s only every now and then – without make-up, and with your legs unshaven, and with your hair untamed – and help the people around you realise that it’s not a big deal, and that you’re still the same person and expect to be treated the same.
And lastly, make sure you teach any kids you come across that they don’t need to look perfect – because that’s the hardest time for anyone to learn that lesson, when you’re surrounded by images of beautiful people with perfect skin and hair and it makes you feel so awful because you think you’ll never look like that, and you’re not yet old or experienced enough to have learned that that’s not true.