“What happened to your face?”
The woman I didn’t know was almost shouting, and not even trying to mask the look of pity on her face. Like most other people, she just wanted to know the story behind it all: Did I catch a rare skin disease? Did I eat something that caused such big acne bumps?
Imagine answering questions about your acne everywhere you go — in the marketplace, school, streets, and church.
At first, I tried to respond to the questions, telling them the pimples appeared suddenly. Initially, I would explain that I had tried using several products, but they did little to help my face. But, when they would not stop bugging me, I decided to stop responding to their questions.
My face hadn’t always been like this. If it had been, maybe I would have developed a thicker skin to handle all the questions, the stares I got when walking down the street, and the looks of pity. But my acne experience started suddenly, and the reactions got to me. No matter how much I tried to be strong and tell myself that I was still beautiful, it affected me deeply.
Acne affects about 95% of adolescents, including many of my high school classmates. My face was smooth back then, so I never imagined I would have this experience later in life. At 15, I saw myself as one of the most beautiful girls in my class. Five years later, acne had done its worst on my self-esteem.
I always thought I could handle anything life threw my way. But I wasn’t ready for the damage acne did to me mentally and emotionally.
The acne outbreaks started in my second year in college. At first it wasn’t that bad. By my third year, it erupted to the point that I was forced to go to the hospital. The dermatologist was only available on certain days, so I had to book an appointment for the following week.
Afterward, I decided to stop at the market close to my school to buy some things. It was busy as usual and people were everywhere. I thought, for once, I would get lost in the crowd without anyone noticing me or asking about my face. But I was wrong.
“What are you using for your face?” the first woman whose shop I entered to buy eggs asked me.
I live in Nigeria, and in my country, people do not mind their business. They feel everyone’s business is their business. My country is a place where a stranger would ask you why you aren’t married or why you haven’t started having kids yet. A place where you get unsolicited advice from not only people you know but strangers as well.
“Make an egg mask with baking powder and apply it to your face twice a day. I once had terrible pimples like yours some years ago,” the woman continued. “This was what I used on my face, and it worked like magic.”
I thanked her and left her shop. If I had listened to the thousands of pieces of advice I have received from people on what to apply to my face, I probably would have destroyed it permanently. A woman in the same market once told me to rub my period blood on my face, an idea that instantly nauseated me.
I couldn’t believe how many people with no knowledge of dermatology were comfortable telling me how to treat my face. I would have preferred they didn’t say anything and minded their business. Although there was another group of people who made me uncomfortable by simply staring. They wouldn’t say a word, but I think I would have preferred them to talk.
At my appointment with the dermatologist the following week, the doctor asked about my medical history and the medications I had taken recently. She pointed out that the prescription corticosteroid I took when I traveled home for vacation could have triggered the breakouts.
The dermatologist prescribed me some facial wash, medications, and topical creams. I was to use a salicylic acid face wash, a topical cream that contains benzoyl peroxide, and a retinol gel. I also took doxycycline medication.
I hoped the medications would work immediately, but I had to wait a while and use it for some time before noticing some changes. Despite how bad it was, I had to force myself to leave my room, go to school, and carry on with my everyday life.
One day, I visited my friend, who told me I was strong. “If I were in your shoes, I wouldn’t be able to bring myself to leave my room,” she said.
“How do you deal with all the questions and stares?” she asked.
“I survive,” I replied, laughing it off. I didn’t tell her the type of willpower it took me to leave my room each day. I didn’t tell her that on some days, I cried when I looked in the mirror.
Luckily, I had supportive friends who helped me feel better about myself. I would watch movies or read books to distract myself. Taking a walk to clear my head during the evening when no one would notice my face also helped.
The medications the dermatologist prescribed eventually worked. It didn’t clear everything, but it helped a lot, especially with kick-starting the healing process. I later had to find other products to help smooth out the scars that the pimples left behind. But not before all of this did a number on my self-esteem.
Recently, I asked Angela Karanja, a psychologist, author, empowerment coach, mentor, and founder of Raising Remarkable Teenagers, about how to deal with the negative feelings that come with acne.
“The first step is the awareness stage,” Karanja said. “Learning to assure ourselves that we are OK and that our human worth is not tied to having or not having a clear face. We are more than a face — way more than a face.”
You may not understand it until you have experienced it. But skin conditions like acne can tank your self-esteem, even causing you to slip into depression. I had to constantly try to remind myself that even with the pimples, my beauty was still intact — maybe hidden, but not lost. And then and now, I am more than just a face.