Once a month in seventh grade, my mother would pick me up from school and drive me to a blood clinic in Greenwich, where a nurse would draw blood from my arm and make sure I was not pregnant.
It was a ridiculous way to spend a late afternoon — I had not started menstruating and the only reason boys looked at me was to copy off me during unit quizzes.
But each night before going to bed I pulled out a white pill packet covered in drawings of deformed babies— with misshapen, bulbous heads, or no ears — peeled off a perforated cardboard oval with a pregnant silhouette slashed with an “X,” and swallowed a crimson pill that shriveled the oil producing glands in my face, turned the sinew in my joints into dental floss and sank my already subterranean self-esteem.
Taking the acne medication Accutane was the furthest I had ever gone in my quest for clear skin. The side effects were so severe that it required a monthly blood test and constant warnings about birth defects. It was also the only thing that worked, and I did it twice.
I suspect that my troubles began with the borrowing of my older sister’s Oxy cleansing pads before I even knew what acne was. Before I left elementary school, I started the regular scorching of my moisture barrier with rubbing alcohol and all of the other acids and foaming agents I now know are present in that purple and orange and blinding white aisle of your local drugstore.
I started to break out, and I did not stop, despite the Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash, the Clean and Clear salicylic acid in the silver tube, Differin and Tazorac and Retin-A from the dermatologist, glycolic acid pads from the facialist in Mamaroneck, Advil crushed on the bathroom counter with a spoon and mixed with honey (both anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial), toothpaste that dotted my face overnight like confetti, Proactiv benzoyl peroxide wash that — to my mother’s never-ending frustration — bleached our towels in great white splotches, Doxycycline in a green pill packet and a myriad of other treatments from nature and from the lab.
And the makeup, oh the makeup! My patient and generous father accompanied me and my sister on missions to CVS with endless overwhelm, length and cost. There were concealers with light, medium, light-medium and heavy coverage. There were primers meant to keep the makeup from sliding off my greasy pores. There was translucent powder meant to “set,” serums meant to “prime” and green and purple pastes meant to “color-correct.” This one was recommended by Seventeen Magazine, but this one was recommended by CosmoGirl. Whom to trust?
In frustration, I threw in the towel and used my sister’s hand-me-down Clinique foundation from Bloomingdale’s, about three shades too light, and presented my linoleum-colored and bumpy face to the world at the 2007 Rye-Harrison Regional Spelling Bee. My losing word was “Chrysanthemum.”
I raged silently at girls in my class who would smear their noses with cake frosting on their birthdays for good luck, unperturbed by the possibility of a breakout. I looked longingly at childhood photos of myself, unable to understand how things had so drastically changed. I picked and poked and prodded my skin with my fingernails, a bobby pin and even a thumbtack, stepping back from the mirror and blurring my eyes to see if the red welts I created drew the eye. Of course they did.
I still remember an anonymous message I got on Facebook that called me “judgemental and zitty,” and the searching eyes of my parents on my face.
Then, I started taking Accutane and my skin would flake off if I did not constantly assail it with Cetaphil moisturizer, thick as mud. The combination of french horn practice, braces and Accutane chapped my lips in broad sheets that I peeled off like corn husks.
These days, on Zoom, I notice I am still always touching and covering my mouth. My bones still creak and my eyes still water in the wind, lasting side effects of my yearslong crusade for clear skin.
There have been multiple iterations of this odyssean journey, the latest involving spirals into the /r/SkinCareAddiction subreddit and the world of Korean beauty. One post on the subreddit last month featured a user who said she had cleared one type of acne by just ditching the harsh ingredients in her routine. Could it be?
After one more use of my Neutrogena oil-free astringent, which cleared my sinuses and burned on application, I did what I should have done a long time ago.
Ridding my routine of acids and spot treatments felt like extricating myself from a security blanket. I am still waiting for the sudden discovery of a painful cyst on my jawline, and I still stand too close to the mirror, looking for blemishes no one else can see.
My skin is pretty clear — have my hormones calmed? Is it my two courses of Accutane?
Or maybe it’s the peace accord I have finally signed with my poor, tired skin, just as the new year begins. My tashlich began with the casting off of salicylic acid. Now my face wash does not foam, and I use moisturizer and sunscreen.
This year, I atone for the sins I have committed by fielding a persistent chemical and physical assault against myself, for making my skin the subject of my constant scrutiny and, occasionally, actual hatred. By still sometimes believing that possessing a clear, unblemished face is more important than being on time, than getting more sleep, than being smart or being kind.
By believing that beauty is pain, and that the sting of menthol means it’s working.
To the skin that protects me from germs, that tells me when something burns, that keeps me cool with a slick of sweat, that has regenerated after every chemical peel, every scab and every spot treatment gone wrong — forgive me.
Molly Boigon is an investigative reporter at the Forward. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Molly Boigon.