When I was about 12 years old I experienced acne for the first time.
In my family when you get acne you will be cured by eating skunk stew. Yes, that’s right: skunk stew! When I was 12 years old my abue went to the market, got a skunk’s leg and cooked it for me. I ate it (it didn’t taste like much). The acne didn’t go away. It got worse. I remember my tia Gude telling my mum: Silvia needs to apply this toner and this other solution where she gets the pimples. So I did, and the acne was kind of OK based on my tia‘s recommendation.
During the same period (12 to 13 years old) it’s when I lost the little self-confidence and self-esteem that I ever had (if any). I had acne, I started wearing glasses, I had the shiniest forehead. It was probably at the same time that I stopped looking at myself in the mirror. I cannot really remember when was the last time I look at myself in the mirror without any fear. By age 15 and 16 I already had some deep acne scars on my face.
When I was 16 my PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome) started showing its symptoms. I saw gynecologists, endocrinologistS, naturopaths, more gynecologists. When I was about 21, my depression and acne (both of these linked, but also dramatically exacerbated by the PCOS) were so bad that I pretty much stopped talking to people. I would cry and cry. I remember that my mum wouldn’t understand why I would cry; she didn’t understand why I was so depressed. One day, while visiting one Dr. for some random reason (I’m not even sure it was my appointment) the Dr. told my mum: you need to do something about your daughter’s acne, I will give you these antibiotics while you find a proper Dr. It was until then that I was taken to a dermatologist.
For about 2 years I took isotretinoin. My dermatologist was a good Dr. Once I was off the medicine, I remember he did at least 3 intense chemical peels in order to improve the scaring. I still remember the sensation of burning on my face. I also remember that after one of the peels, I went back to school. The girlfriend of my one my friends said: Silvia, what happened to your face? My face wasn’t red at all, but you could see thin layers of scabbing caused by the chemical peel’s burn. I didn’t like her at all even before her question, but I still explained to her what was happening to me. You should have not come back to school looking like that, she said. Oh! How I remember the exact place where she said those words, and how terrible I felt.
I guess the scars improved because of the peels, but be honest I’m not sure. I was so traumatized by everything. I was traumatized because I felt abandoned; I felt like my family didn’t do anything until it was late. I felt alone because I have never been close to anyone who has a single acne scar. I felt ugly, even uglier because to begin with I had never felt that I was pretty at all.
In my family, and in the society I grew-up, how you look is how you’re treated. You need to be pretty and skinny to have a boyfriend. I heard this kind of stories all my life. We were constantly judging people based on how they look: la gorda, the one with bad hair, the one with terrible fashion. Women in my family constantly justify men’s actions and treatment towards women based on women’s looks. And here I was: ugly, with acne scars on my face. How was I supposed to get a boyfriend? All this was happening during my university years. I remember that my mum and my abue were convinced that I didn’t have a boyfriend because I refused to wear mascara to school (yes, you read that right, I didn’t have a boyfriend because I didn’t wear mascara on my eyelashes).
During the last months of my acne treatment, right when I was also doing the chemical peels and seeing a new gynecologist to treat my PCOS, I had a boyfriend. To be honest he wasn’t good to me at all. I remember he would yell at me, ignore me, just not treat me right. But I didn’t care because he was with me: he hugged me, he kissed me and he thought I was pretty; he would call me princess. On one occasion, my mum couldn’t go to the Dr. with me so my boyfriend went with me (he wasn’t always bad; I was convinced that he loved me and that I loved him). I was so upset when I left the Dr’s office. I was upset because the treatment was painful and because my boyfriend was looking at me without any makeup, with a burned face because of the chemical peel. I remember he said: do you know what you’re missing to be a real princess? your little princess crown. I remember he said that when we were waiting to take the bus back to my house. I cried. Even now I want to cry.
So this past January, when I saw the acne coming back I was crushed, I just couldn’t handle it at all. I have a wonderful perfect husband, yet, I still feel alone, upset, ugly and undeserving of love. All my memories from over 10 years ago came back. Even when I know it’s not true at all, I often feel so ugly that I don’t really understand how can my husband love me so much. My husband’s love for me contradicts everything that I was told for 23 years about love, caring, and beauty.
Now I have a strong Catholic faith that helps me see things in a different way. My priest told me to thank God for the acne because it was freeing me from vanity. When I heard him saying that, I was so upset. Every time I leave the confessional I’m motivated and encouraged. That day I wasn’t. I knew that what Father was saying was accurate, but I didn’t want to hear such thing. So I prayed to God to help me, to help me honestly thank Him for the acne. I’ve been praying to God that I may be free from vanity.
This Lent, I decided as part of my penance, to go makeup free every Friday. This was so incredibly hard because I haven’t shown up to work or school without makeup in about 18 years. After 3 Fridays I’ve been treated the same, nobody has said anything about my looks. People who know I’m doing this penance are encouraging and loving. But of course, Silvia decided to Skype with her family last Friday: and what was I told? That I looked fat, that I looked tired with those dark circles under my eyes. Really? I haven’t seen you in so long and that’s the first thing you’re telling me? Father told me, they said that, because that’s what’s important to them. They love you, but they won’t support on this.
I don’t really know how to end this post. The acne is a little better. And I continue praying that I may be free from vanity. But it’s so hard! In spite of my education, knowledge of facts about what really matters, or my attempts to be a body positive activist, I was told for 23 years that looks matter a lot, that I must be pretty and skinny if I want my husband to stay with me. Even when I want to be a progressive Catholic feminist, it’s so hard to see the beauty that Jesus sees in me. But I pray that I may be free from vanity and see myself the way Jesus sees me. And I know this prayer will be answered.