Acne and Instagram

The unlikely perfect match

by Isabella Matthews

Growing up, the main thing everyone wants is to simply fit in. In a world surrounded by images of slim women with flawless skin, it can be really tough to not exactly match that norm. When I first started developing acne aged 9, I realised I would never be able to fit that media representation of what a woman should look like. After an agonising process of trying different medications, skincare regimes and diets, I finally managed to get rid of my acne after taking Roaccutane when I was 17. In the UK, we are lucky to be able to access tablets, antibiotics and topical creams for free. However, it does mean the process is lengthy and it wasn’t until I argued relentlessly with doctors and explained how badly my acne was affecting my mental health that I was able to get referred for Roaccutane. Roaccutane gets a lot of bad press but it totally changed my life. Over the 7 months I took the tablets, I developed the severe side effects anyone with severe cystic acne has heard about, in particular incredibly dry and painful skin. However, I became more confident, outspoken and enjoyed my life a lot more. My skin troubles became my dirty little secret.

Only a handful of people have ever seen me without makeup on. When I make a new friend or meet someone new, it’s a massive step to show them my face without makeup, as I do still have acne and considerable scarring. The reactions can really show me who I want to keep in my life. I’ve been told my skin is gross and had people physically recoil at the sight of my face. These reactions encouraged me to listen to my insecurities and believe my skin was something to hide and cover forever.

'It's impossible to calculate the amount I have spent on skin care regimes and diets to try and control my skin over the years...'

Acne reared its ugly head again at the start of 2020, so naturally I decided to go back onto the medication that worked wonders for me. I became confronted by the fact I am now a completely different person to the one who tried Roaccutane all those years ago. Seeing so much body acceptance, particularly on Instagram, I realised that even the media we consume has evolved. After my own mental health battle a couple of years ago, I was able to engage with the incredible online community who share body positivity, mental health experiences and talk about life in all its unedited glory. People often talk about how difficult it is to grow up with the influences of social media and how often people’s mental health is affected by flawless images of models and influencers on Instagram. However, for me, seeing the comments and reactions from normal people underneath celebrities posts were often more debilitating for my growth.

Additionally, posts about acne don’t always garner a positive reaction. When Kendall Jenner announced her Proactiv partnership and shared her struggle with acne (described as ‘brave’, ‘vulnerable’ and a ‘most raw story’ by mom-ager Kris Jenner, she received a lot of backlash. I do think the Kardashians will always garner negative press but for someone who does struggle with acne, it's quite inspiring to see someone in the public eye (and a model, no less) going through the same difficulties. However, Kendall Jenner has access to the best dermatologists and is able to afford lengthy skincare processes and expensive products that are completely inaccessible for the average consumer. It's impossible to calculate the amount I have spent on skin care regimes and diets to try and control my skin over the years - it's definitely well within the hundreds and it's not economically viable at all, especially when, as I have experienced, most products you do buy don’t work the wonders they claim.

Although it shouldn't be, the act of sharing yourself unfiltered and without makeup on when you have problem skin (whether it is eczema, rosacea or acne) is hard. Even incredible icons like Rihanna experience trolling: in January this year, Instagram users commented on her bare-faced selfie with ‘let me pop your pimple’ and ‘u deserve that pimple’. Rihanna’s reaction is what fills impressionable people, myself included, with confidence and admiration. Rihanna replied to comments telling them to ‘let her have her shine, PLEASE’. If Rihanna can laugh and embrace her skin troubles, why can’t I? I’ve experienced negative comments all my life from people I know and that I don't, so I decided to embrace Rihanna’s confidence. Engaging with the positivity communities on Instagram, alongside the encouragement of friends, led me to create an acne visibility and awareness account a couple of weeks ago.

When I started @spottylittlething, I had a few motives. I wanted to offer some guidance for those who are considering Roaccutane. It's known as a dangerous drug with pretty severe side effects and the process of taking the medication is incredibly draining. For those that don’t know, there have been links between Roaccutane and declining mental health, liver issues (you aren’t allowed to consume any alcohol whilst on treatment) and pregnancy. When I first went on Roaccutante, I also had to be taking a form of birth control, take a pregnancy test every couple of months and sign a contract to essentially say I wouldn’t sue the NHS if I gave birth to a baby with birth defects whilst on the tablets.

'If there’s one thing about acne I’m certain of, it's that there is no one-size-fits-all fix.'

I also want to be the person that others can reach out to so they know they are not alone. I’ve tried so many different diet fads and skin care products (which has developed into a passion for skincare) that I’d love to share products that I have found work for me whilst also emphasising to followers that everyone's skin is different. If there’s one thing about acne I’m certain of, it's that there is no one-size-fits-all fix. Every skin care brand claims to have that ‘miracle product’ that will work wonders for you whereas in reality, their marketing is designed to promote claims they can’t fulfil in order to sell. This particularly comes from brands who have no background in acne and problem skin.

I’ve received a shocking amount of unsolicited advice from everyone from family to strangers telling me to drink more water or cut out dairy. For me, this is the worst thing about having acne. This advice commonly comes from those who may occasionally get one spot and in reality have little to no experience of dealing with problem skin. Here’s some quick myth debunking: acne is more likely to come from over-washing than your skin being dirty, certain foods can make you more susceptible to flare ups but will not have a direct effect on hormonal acne, and water is great for you but I don’t know anyone who has had severe cystic acne and will preach that drinking their two litres and nothing else has cured them. So please, if someone does not directly ask you for advice about their skin, do not make a comment, however helpful you think you are being. I have spent far too much of my life crying in bathrooms thinking the whole world is judging my skin as a result of unsolicited advice.

'The reality is that finding the perfect products or medication that work for you is a complete battle of trial and error.'

The reality is that finding the perfect products or medication that work for you is a complete battle of trial and error. I’ve learnt so much about skin care over the years (in particular finding products that don’t further irritate my skin), and I want to share what has worked for me with followers. However, it’s so important to remember that there's no guarantee that even what works for me will work for everyone, or even one other person. Whether it's Roaccutane or a moisturiser: everyone's skin is different.

Most importantly, I wanted my account to offer acne visibility. I have such a difficult relationship with my skin that I don’t think I could ever define myself as acne positive. However, I’ve had acne for over half my life in the form of scarring and spots. On Instagram, we all represent our best selves and it’s important to remember the motto ‘don’t compare your everyday life to someone else's highlight reel’. Despite this I want to show others and prove to myself that my skin does not mean I’m not showing my best self. I 100% believe you can still be beautiful and be acne-ridden.

In less than a week, the account has given me so much more than I ever anticipated. I thought I’d get about 10 followers - mainly people I know. I’ve been inundated with messages from people across the world sharing their stories. So many people have had problematic skin or are very close to someone who has; both strangers and people I’ve met have already thanked me for starting the account. The acne community is incredibly active and welcoming. It’s already given me so much more confidence when facing the world with my bare skin.

I do find it hard to post photos and videos of my skin without makeup on because I’m working against the shame I’ve imposed on myself over the years. However, a lot has changed since then. My own ideas about what a ‘woman’ should be has drastically evolved, and my views and outlook on society are constantly adapting. This leads me to now: whilst I’m breaking my own personal stigmas and trying to support others, I’ve also got an army of hundreds of people from across the world supporting me every step of the way.

'Break your own stigmas and realise that whether you decide to go out make-up free or not, your skin and your scarring is a part of you so choose to embrace it.'

If you’re someone who has ever shamed someone for their skin (or anything for that matter) take a moment and work out where that hatred came from. You have no idea what your words can mean to someone and how long-lasting an impact they may have. And to anyone who has ever suffered with acne or had problems with their skin, stop and think. The world is changing. There are more people behind you who want to see you thrive and support you than you could ever imagine. Break your own stigmas and realise that whether you decide to go out make-up free or not, your skin and your scarring is a part of you so choose to embrace it. There’s something a lot of us in the acne community talk about: your scars are your battle wounds, wear them with pride.

Isabella Matthews is a London based creative. Currently, she is working in fashion as a brand manager whilst also running an acne visibility Instagram, @spottylittlething. Isabella is passionate about sustainability (a major focus of her work is making fashion sustainable), creating a kinder planet and feminism!