Words and Photography by: Joseph Lew
Cells plump of melanocytes, three layers of flexible tissue stretching two metres long, the human skin is a mechanical marvel. Layers upon layers of a living organ packed with melanin, follicles and glands.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a complicated and toxic relationship with my skin. This love-hate affair started when I was younger, at the age of seven or eight, when strangers, friends and family alike would praise me for my skin — for its softness, smoothness and flawlessness, quickly becoming a point of pride for my juvenile self.
When puberty struck, which in my case was admittedly pretty late, it struck hard. Cystic lumps pushed their way through my once spotless skin, my baby soft and silken smooth features quickly replaced with angry pimples and spotty zits. Ashamed and insecure of the changes to my appearance, I impulsively popped and picked, scratched and squeezed at every chance I could, leaving my skin inflamed, scarred and bleeding.
As my skin continued to worsen, my self-esteem became seemingly intertwined with the clarity of my appearance, placing my self-worth and confidence at an all-time low. As teenagers do, I tore myself apart in the mirror piece by piece — I was too skinny, my head was too wide, my arms were too bony, my legs were too scrawny — but nothing came close to the way I felt about my skin, and the lumps and bumps forming on every surface of my body.
Adonis-like models with porcelain skin and poreless complexion adorned my Instagram feed, staring me down, and making me feel even worse about myself every time I jumped online. At one point, I thought that all my pores were blackheads, just because I didn’t see them anywhere on screen.
My battle with my acne turned me into a maniac. I became well acquainted with Chemist Warehouse and Priceline, my vocabulary (and my bathroom cabinet) steadily filling with salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide, retinoids and tea tree oil. When none of these treatments seemed to work, I cried over my problems to my GP, who prescribed me with a course of antibiotics. And miraculously, they worked.
Until they didn’t.
Plagued once again with cystic outbreaks and low self-esteem, my GP directed me to a local dermatologist. Five minutes later and $200 down, I was sent out with eight months of Accutane prescriptions and the knowledge that my enlarged pores and acne-prone skin were things that I had inherited from my parents — thanks mum.
For those of you that don’t know, Accutane is a vitamin-A derivative used to treat rosacea, certain kinds of cancer and most commonly, severe acne. Accutane works by changing the way that your body functions, it stops oil production and increases cell turnover, making it the most effective and only permanent solution on the market.
The thing about Accutane is it comes with an extensive list of side-effects. For starters, Accutane can result in significant birth defects, and is linked to anaemia, dermatitis and Crohn’s diseases. For me, these side-effects manifested themselves in the form of cracked lips, flaky skin, daily nosebleeds and for the first two months of treatment, the worst skin I had ever had in my life. My joints would constantly ache, my hair started to thin and on some days, I would be so lethargic that I would refuse to get out of
I felt worse about my appearance than ever, and my skin started to take complete and utter control over my life. I would refuse to go out, cancel plans and make excuses about why I couldn’t do this or that, instead spending hours at home sitting in front of the mirror, crying over my reflection.
It’s been over a year and a half since the end of my treatment, but my struggle with my skin is far from over. My acne returned several months after my last dosage and this time, it looks like it’s here to stay. My skin is far from perfect and my relationship with it continues to be just as blemished but honestly, I’m sick of fighting myself over it. I’d be lying if I spun you the cliched “I’m comfortable in my own skin” because I’m still not. But I’m at the point where I don’t hate it either, and for me, that’s a big fucking step.