I visited the beauty aisle in Target the other day, which is something I don’t do often, and not because I usually buy my beauty products somewhere fancier. No: I’m a consumer of Maybelline and Cover Girl and Neutrogena. Oil of Olay and Chapstick have earned a good deal off of me. But stick me in a Sephora and I feel nervous. I will skirt the edges of a department store to avoid the Clinique counter (and whatever brands they have nowadays–Justin Bieber? Does he do skincare?). This is not an entirely unfounded fear. I have horrible skin. I once decided to approach a department store beauty consultant, just in case she had something magic in her sample case, and as she surveyed my face her expression darkened. She was clearly afraid of me. I asked questions and she barely spoke. If I looked deeply into her eyes, I’m sure I would have seen these words scrolling through her brain: Go away, go away, go away.
To be fair to her, this was back when I had acne–though I’m not sure it’s honest to put that in the past tense. This was when I had cystic acne. The kind you can’t fix with a skin cream. The kind that comes from inside your body, from your hormones. The kind that, depending on the severity, you pretty much have to wait out.
I’ve had cystic acne at three phases of my life: adolescence, the baby-crazy years (late twenties), and during/after my first pregnancy. I’ve had topical acne off and on since I was ten. I have ruddy, easily inflamed skin on my nose and cheeks. I managed to get through high school and college with minimal scarring, but the pregnancy and postpartum acne was so intense that I’m now pock-marked up and down my cheekbones (and if you say it’s my own fault for picking at it, I want you to know that 80% or more of those scars are a product of simply sleeping on my sides; I woke up many mornings with flecks of blood from where the pimples had popped on my pillow.)
Now, if you don’t suffer from problem skin (and maybe if you do), you’re thinking, disgusting! You’re thinking, TMI! I’m here to tell you it’s not too much information. I’m here to say there isn’t enough information out there, enough honest accounts of what it’s like to have trouble skin.
Also, I’m here because, having spent many years learning the virtues and foibles of salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide, of reading and experimenting and hoping against hope that I would stumble across the elusive miracle cure (and if you’re about to recommend Accutane: tried it, experienced major depressive side effects in addition to Sahara skin, and abandoned the medication about halfway through), I now have a new bundle of empty promises to sift through. Firming! Lifting! Blurring! That’s right: I still get pimples, but now they’re accented by my burgeoning fine lines.
So I was at Target, in that hyper-lighted aisle that makes me feel certain that every other shopper can see into the abyss of every one of my enlarged pores. And maybe it’s because I shop somewhere so general, but it seems like all the products are aimed at either teenagers or old ladies. Nearly every jar promised age defiance or an acne cure, or else they were for “normal” skin. And as I might have mentioned, my skin is far from normal.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to terms with this fact. At times I’m almost grateful; if my skin had been beautiful in my youth, I would probably be far more upset to see it go downhill. As it is, my skin is different but possibly nicer than it was when I was sixteen. It’s only been in the last couple of years that I’ve ever looked in the mirror and spontaneously thought, I am beautiful. The closest I’d come to that in my past life was when coated in an inch of stage makeup and topped with a fine blonde wig. But now, somehow, there are days when I see myself–enlarged pores, acne scars, double chin and all–and I’m fairly impressed. I am not the blob of ugly I’d previously thought myself to be. Perhaps it’s hormones. The major difference between these last two years and the rest of my life can probably be boiled down to pregnancy and nursing hormones (somehow drastically different with the girl than with the boy). But I think it’s more than that. I think I’ve spent so much of my time thinking so badly of myself, thinking I needed to find the right cream or makeup or medicine to make me better–thinking that my natural state was disordered or diseased–that when I got old enough and tired enough not to care anymore, I was genuinely surprised to see myself through a clearer filter.
So I wandered the beauty aisle at Target, reading every label I could before my daughter had a meltdown, and each time I thought, I don’t really need that. Partly because they don’t make a product that meets my specific needs or desires, but partly because I’m starting to realize that even the one bottle that promised to cure all my ills would never deliver, would never transform me into the model who was shilling it, and that I don’t actually have a deep-down desire to be her anyway. So as the baby started to grump and groan, I grabbed a simple nighttime moisturizer, one that promised no miracles, just a little cream to keep my skin from feeling so tight at bedtime. And it’s been working.