I was 12 when I learned I was ugly.
I'd spent a week at a summer camp, warbling my way through tunes around the campfire, and I'd even made some friends while doing it – five of us, no older than 13, stuffed on a little bench outside the camp building. Puberty had just reared its horrible head, and I'd been told what was to come – growth spurts and body hair and periods – but I couldn't feel its jaws on my throat yet. The most I was aware of was the acne bubbling up on my face; spots like hulking volcanoes ready to erupt, painful and raw. My mum insisted they would go away on their own, and I had believed her. She hadn't been wrong yet, after all.
One girl cleared her throat, the sharp sound breaking the quiet. She leaned over to say to another girl, 'You know your brother's fit, right?'
The sister screwed up her face. 'Shut up. My brother's ugly.'
I cringed at the venom in her voice. 'Why?' I asked, dread settling in my stomach.
'Well, he's got so many spots.'
The air went cold. Everyone noticed the Freudian slip. The heat of their eyes, waiting to see what I'd do, burned through my skin. I was speaking before I knew it, the need to challenge this girl stronger than any sense of self-preservation. 'I've got spots,' I said, 'Does that make me ugly?'
The girl flinched, but looked at me – gave me a good, long look, squinting at my face like I was a scientific sample to be scrutinised. 'Well,' she said, 'Yeah'.
She said it like it was a given, the most obvious thing in the world. Obviously, you are ugly.
I hadn't thought I was ugly. Not until then. But from that moment, it was all I knew.
I knew my acne was all anyone saw when they looked at me; not a person, but a carrier for pus and blackheads and bleeding sores. I searched for photos of 'severe cystic acne', hoping for reassurance I wasn't that bad, but the tearful faces frowning back at me looked just like mine. I learned everyone felt the same way that girl did; everyone knew that acne made you ugly.
I would stare in the mirror until my eyes went dry, memorising the unnatural juts of my skin, full of gross fascination. I wondered just how long it would take to completely purge my skin. Other days, I wouldn't be able to look at myself, so overwhelmed with disgust that even the slightest glimpse made me gag. I couldn't understand how anyone could bear to look at me. There was always something ready to reinforce my anxieties – skincare advertisements. My life was full of them; every waking moment filled with things I could buy to make me beautiful. Special stickers to put over pimples to make them disappear – tiny, impossible miracles in a box. Detox smoothies that could only really detox my bank account. I gouged holes into miracle creams and my own self-esteem and watched my face transform into a blistered, bleeding mosaic of red and white. All of these products, all touting themselves as cures, all for the low, low price of what was left of my dignity.
Social media drowned me in potential treatments, always somehow knowing exactly what I wanted. I hated that these little capitalistic algorithms could see my deepest insecurities; because if they could see them, then everyone else must, too?
This all-consuming anxiety, hatred, and disgust is the experience of the 85% of teenagers diagnosed with acne. You, statistically, probably have acne, or have had it in the past. People with acne are in the overwhelming majority. So, why is there so much stigma? Why, at my lowest, was I so achingly alone?
As of 2020, the global skincare market is valued at over £110 billion. Hundreds of companies stake their worth on how much you hate your skin. They bombard the media with advertisements about how attractive their product can make you – insinuating, of course, you are not that just now. It's very profitable to promise you can cure something so many people suffer from – especially preteens, who will often do anything to feel desirable. They want you to feel as ugly as possible; to wear you down, promise you the world and bleed you dry. When the world is full of this – when acne is viewed as something for the ugly, and a multibillion-pound industry backs the idea – what is there to do but hate yourself? Can people with acne be at peace, or are we doomed to live our lives shackled to the state of our skin?
One day, searching out ways to hurt myself, I looked up 'acne' online. There was the usual perfect-skinned influencers promising their new sponsor was the thing I was missing, and dramatic 'before and afters' of blistered faces transforming into satin-soft pictures of beauty – but something caught my eye. Something I hadn't seen before.
People with acne… Smiling.
There's a small but diligent community working to destigmatise acne. Often, they've got some of the worst cases of acne, but they're beautiful, and honest, and at peace with themselves. They're not trying to sell you anything. They've got no tricks to turn. They just want you to feel better, because they've been as low as you have, and they know how that feels. That was the first moment I felt hopeful; when I looked for people who looked like me and found they were happy. Because if they were happy, surely, I could be too?
The unlearning is difficult, but worth it. Not only are you kinder to yourself, but you're kinder to others, too. The need to compare yourself, to always be the prettiest in the room, eases away. Best of all, you don't weigh your worth against something as fickle as your hormonal imbalances. Just as we destigmatise weight and mental health, we must destigmatise acne. It's not ugly or unhealthy – it's just skin. Days you are breaking out are not 'bad' days – they're just days. You're worth exactly the same as you were before. The only people that benefit from you hating yourself are the millionaires profiting from it.
Some days, I slip into old habits. I show people old photos of myself, just to hear them coo, 'Wow, what a change!' I window-shop for products I know will do nothing for me. I stare at my skin in the mirror, wondering, 'can I pop that one without it scarring?', knowing the answer is always no. But I can pull myself back from it now.
People will think what they want of my skin; they'll think they're doing me a favour when they remind me how it looks; they'll recommend products I've tried 100 times before; they'll stare openly, then wince when I meet their eye. But no matter who thinks what, because of the time I took to love my skin and myself, I know I'm not ugly.
I was 17 when I knew I was worth something.
for the winning paper by Amy Campbell
for the joint runner-up paper by Mila Stricevic