Can Acne Be Beautiful?

Online skin positivity and acne acceptance movements are growing faster than ever through social media platforms like Instagram. As they’re making huge progress in helping to remove the shame and stigma around having unclear skin, could we ever reach point where acne isn’t just accepted, but seen as beautiful? 

Like anyone who has suffered with it, I can tell you that having acne sucks.

It’s a pain to deal with in the best of cases and if, like me, your bog-standard Clearasil and a round of antibiotics doesn’t help, the journey to achieving clear skin can be long, frustrating, expensive, and – in some cases – unending. But it’s a journey you feel compelled to make.

Although acne is one of the most common skin conditions in the world, it’s estimated to affect 85% of young people aged from 12-25, it’s still associated with a lot of shame and stigma.

It’s rare to see acne at all represented in the media, except for in adverts for products that claim to make it go away. If an actor in a TV show has acne, it’s concealed with make-up. If a model featured in a magazine has it, it’ll be photoshopped out.

We’re taught acne is unattractive, a problem to be solved– and if you have it, you better get rid of it asap.

But the rise of social media has allowed us to see things from another perspective.

“Even though it is credited with having a big negative impact on our self-esteem, one thing social media has done is help democratise representation,” says Joanna Kenny, an Instagram skin positivity and acne acceptance influencer.

“We no longer have to wait for the media to acknowledge our existence. Now, if we want to be seen or heard, we can make space for ourselves online.”

A chronic acne sufferer who works in the skin care industry, Joanna says the skin and acne positivity movements on Instagram have helped normalise the condition and remove some of the stigma around having acne.

“We so rarely see acne and talk about it openly, so there are tons of misconceptions that go around unchallenged – like, acne is caused by poor hygiene, it’ll go if you drink more water, it’s something everyone grows out of.

“I think part of why acne is generally seen as ‘ugly’ is because it’s associated with these assumptions that if you get spots you must be ‘dirty’ or ‘unhealthy’, but this isn’t really true.

“Once we remove these misconceptions about what it means to have acne, we can start to remove some of its perceived ugliness.”

One body positivity Instagram account that has received much praise belongs to photographer Peter Devito. He’s photographed many different models who aren’t normally represented in media, and he’s also created portraits featuring models with visible acne.

One series focuses on showing people with acne smiling, highlighting how infrequently we see images of people with acne not looking miserable about their blemishes.

Devito uses his skills as a photographer to create striking portraits that don’t conceal acne but present it as something worthy of being looked at – perhaps even as beautiful – helps to push back against the feeling that you should be ashamed of unclear skin.

According to the psychological phenomenon the familiarity principle, people tend find things more attractive when they are seen as familiar. So perhaps seeing better representation of acne would lead to viewing acne as attractive, or at least not as inherently unattractive.

A New York Times feature “Is Acne Cool Now?” looks at how celebrities like Kendall Jenner, Lili Reinhart and SZA have joined in on the ‘trend’ of skin positivity and have posted selfies with their blemishes showing.

At a time when we’re all sick of retouched images and the general ‘fakeness’ of social media, could sporting your pimples be a way of appearing authentic?

The mood around acne is shifting toward acceptance, but whether could ever become desirable is hard to say.

In the piece, professor of dermatology Dr Doris Day points out that acne is still a medical condition that scars. “I don’t think acne will ever be cool, any more than Selena Gomez having lupus would be cool,” she says.

Since we tend to associate ‘beauty’ with ‘health’, the notion of acne being beautiful while being a skin condition seems paradoxical.

But what’s beautiful isn’t always centred on what is healthy. The ‘heroin chic’ trend of the 90s equated looking emaciated and sickly with being alluring and desirable. For a long time, anorexic models where upheld as having the ideal female body type.

And plenty of features that have consistently been labelled ‘ugly’ – darker skin tones, afro textured hair, ginger hair, freckles – have nothing at all to do with health.

What we consider beauty is more a reflection of our cultural norms and ideals more than anything else.

Maybe rather than asking, “Could acne ever be accepted as ‘beautiful’?” The questions we should be asking are: “Why do we have to feel physically beautiful in order to fully accept ourselves?” and “Who gets to decide beauty is?”

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