In 2018 we are finally beginning to see diverse bodies represented in mainstream media; people of all skin tones, weights and shapes are finally beginning to grace our screens and magazines. But if “real” is the newest beauty trend, why is there still such a stigma around showing imperfect skin?
For almost half my life now I have struggled with acne. When puberty hit me at 16 (I was a seriously-late bloomer) I began to see a change in not only my body, but on my face. What had always been soft clear skin had become angry, red welts covering my chin and cheeks. Everyone around me assured me that it was merely a brief phase of adolescence I would have to endure, but it wouldn’t last long. Seven years later, as I am about to celebrate my 22nd birthday, that same angry acne still covers my cheeks. The same feelings of humiliation and disgust still remain. But the question is: if acne is normal, why am I so ashamed?
What is Acne?
But first, let’s get real about what acne actually is. Acne or “problem skin” is often associated with poor hygiene or lack of skincare knowledge. I can’t tell you the number of times people have asked if I wash my face. Yes, that’s right. Complete strangers have asked me if I wash my face.
Despite this common misconception, medical research has found that acne is mostly a hereditary disease which causes the inflammation of the hair follicles, and can also be triggered by hormonal changes (hence why it’s so common during puberty). Furthermore, the belief that acne is only suffered by teenagers has also been dismantled, as one study by the University of Leeds found that 54% of adult women over the age of 25 struggled with acne. Overall, acne is one of the most common diseases worldwide, as it is estimated that 90% of teenagers will experience this skin condition at some point.
Why do these myths persist?
If acne is so common, why then is there such a stigma around showing less-than-perfect skin in mainstream media? Acne and other skin conditions are almost exclusively represented as negative in mainstream media, as “normal” people are rarely shown with anything but perfect skin.
Just one example of the beauty industry’s attitude towards acne can be found in the recent controversy surrounding L’Oreal and beauty blogger Kadeeja Khan (known by her Instagram handle @emeraldxbeauty). Khan, who has openly documented her experience with acne, claims that she was dropped from a L’Oreal campaign earlier this year after a spokesperson for the beauty brand claimed that company policy meant that they could not “be involved with people with skin issues.” This is even more outrageous when you realise that the product Khan had been hired to promote was a hair-dye, and therefore her skin would have no impact on showing the effectiveness of the product. Simply, L’Oreal did not want their brand to be associated with acne.
This attitude towards acne is not exclusive to the beauty industry, as a similar anti-acne sentiment is also reflected in the film and television industries. A 2013 study by the University of Texas found that the shows they studied served to reinforce negative cultural stereotypes surrounding acne. In fact, they found that “good” and “normal” characters were at worst shown to have one single pimple, and the episode would often revolve around the embarrassment caused by the blemish (think of that Hannah Montana episode where a single zit causes full blown meltdown mode). This was in stark contrast to “bad” or “geek” characters, who were the only ones to be shown with proper acne or obviously flawed skin ( e.g. Craterface from grease).
Why Does Representation Matter?
This lack of positive acne representation doesn’t only make sufferers like myself feel super shitty, but on a larger scale it also contributes to the stigma and misinformation surrounding the condition itself.
It is clear from research that the more we are exposed to something in the media, the more accepting we become of it. This theory was proven in a UK study which showed participants images of overweight faceless women; as the study progressed (and the participants exposed to more images) the women were found to be more accepting of not only their own weight, but with others who were overweight. On the flip-side of this theory is that when we don’t see something in the media, we are conditioned to think it is not normal. Communication researcher George Gerbner referred to this concept as “symbolic annihilation”, summarising “representation in the fictional world signifies social existence; absence means symbolic annihilation.” In essence, representation matters because when we don’t see ourselves reflected in the media, we feel as though we are not normal, valuable members of society.
But all is not lost, as Greta Gerwig’s latest film Ladybird might just be the acne love we so desperately need. The film has been praised for featuring a teenage female protagonist, played by Saoirse Ronan, who has visible acne and acne-scars. This simple act of depicting adolescence in a true and honest form goes a lot further than just making a relatable character, but it also serves to normalise a very common skin condition.
It is so important for the media to start recognizing and including the experience of acne in their storytelling in order to reduce the stigma surrounding it. If mainstream media were to be more inclusive of acne (and other skin conditions) it would not only challenge the negative stereotypes surrounding skin conditions, but it would help those with acne understanding they are not alone in their experience.
At the end of the day, it’s easy to get caught up in the negative portrayal of acne and feel as though my skin is something I should be ashamed of. I have to remind myself, like many others, that no matter what I do I will probably have acne and nevertheless, it doesn’t mean I am not beautiful. It does not mean I am not intelligent, important or valuable. We’ve got a way to go, but I hope that one day the rest of the world can realise this too.