I had my first breakout in 2012, a week after my 18th birthday. It was my during my first year of college and my first year of living away from home, learning how to fend for myself while in an entirely new city.
All through my early teenage years, I was blessed with clear skin. I was so complacent and comfortable in my appearance – in my skin, to be specific - that I hardly ever practiced regimented skincare or applied any makeup. My routine consisted of the ocassional face wash and moisturizer, a turmeric face mask here and there (whenever my mother decided to impose it upon me), and barely a hint of night cream. In fact, I considered myself above skincare. It was too much work for me. And I didn’t even think I needed it.
But that week after my 18th birthday, when I got a breakout so bad I didn’t even have the courage to step out of my dorm room, I did something I hadn’t ever done before. I asked my roommate if I could borrow her concealer.
Five and a half years later, I am struggling with acne. I have tried multiple treatments – medication, ointments, intense skin care regimes, face masks, spot correctors, and so on and so forth – but none have yielded long term results. My acne is largely hormonal, and continues to persist. There is nothing more debilitating than waking up in the morning and seeing a new angry spot on your face, nothing more cripplingly devastating to your self-esteem than to have other people constantly comment on the state of your skin and point out your scars and spots. On bad breakout days, I wilfully shut myself inside my room, avoiding all social interaction. I never tie my hair back for fear of leaving my blemished skin too exposed to scrutiny and judgement.
And so what do I do? I rely on makeup.
In my journey with trying out multiple skincare treatments (which has also served to educate me about its importance), I have also experimented with makeup considerably. At first, it started out as a compulsion. I used to be so utterly petrified to step out of the house bare-faced that I found myself lathering on foundation even while going to the corner store. But eventually, it evolved from a compulsion to a hobby.
Makeup became armour. For someone like me, who struggles with a whole plethora of self-image issues, putting on makeup to look good was ridiculously self-affirming. It gave me confidence, hope. It made me aware of the skill required in applying it, in the kind of self-care it helps me accomplish. I, the person who used to look down upon makeup as a teenager, began appreciating it in a new light. It changed me, made me a better version of myself.
That being said, I acknowledge the problematic nature of my affinity towards makeup. I took to it to essentially conform to a certain patriarchal standard of beauty, because society told me my acne wasn’t valid or acceptable. I relied on it to project an idealized version of myself, to mask my inherent insecurities about my appearance. But this is where the dichotomy lies. Even if it was born out of a patriarchal conditioning, it still became a mode of self-expression. So does this make me a bad feminist?
My love for makeup also came with its benefits. I learnt the difference between comedogenic and non-comedogenic products, I learnt what was good for my skin and what wasn’t. I learnt how to take care of my skin – which I may never have, had I remained the complacent teenager who only washed and moisturized her face when she was compelled to. In a way, having acne made me more self-aware. It made me examine my beliefs vis-à-vis patriarchal beauty standards and self-confidence, and it made me realize that skincare is as serious a bodily requirement as anything else.
But the complexity and confusion surrounding my love for makeup and reconciling it with my feminist beliefs remains a dilemma. I may no longer be as conscious about my acne-ridden skin so as to put on foundation even while going out on a quick errand but I still depend on makeup to hide scars and blemishes, and I still reel under the scrutiny of those who choose to comment on my pimples and give me unsolicited advice. So does that mean that my reliance on makeup reinforces the patriarchal standards of beauty women are continuously forced to internalise? Or can I ever enjoy makeup without the cultural and social baggage associated with it? These are questions I haven’t found answers to, and I’m not sure I ever will. It will perhaps still take me a while to accept my bare acne-ridden skin in its complete glory, and it will perhaps take me a while to free myself from fear of social expectations. But for now, at least, makeup helps me make sense of a large part of my identity, and I’m happy with that.