By Ariel Levy
One morning when I was in seventh grade, my mother asked me if I thought I
needed to stay home from school. I wasn’t sick, and it wasn’t a snow day. But I
did have a pimple the size of a softball on the tip of my nose. My mom may be
the least vain woman in America. She never wears makeup, never colors her hair,
and the only time I’ve ever seen her in heels (little ones) was at my wedding.
When she had breast cancer, she got a double mastectomy and had to convince the
doctors she didn’t want implants. (They insisted that living without breasts
would be too traumatic for her, but they didn’t know my mom.) So when the least
vain woman in America suggests you look too ridiculous for public viewing, you
know you’ve got a problem. I stayed home for two days.
I got some doozies in my teens. I’ve never had those vast, lavalike swaths
of acne you see in the “before” pictures; mine was more of the single
shining-star variety — one angry, tenacious monster at any given time. It was
humiliating to walk down the halls of Mamaroneck High School with an enormous
pimple on my cheek or my chin or my forehead, but at least I had the
consolation of knowing I wasn’t the only one. Besides, in my teens, I was
insecure about so many things. Zits were just a drop in the bucket.
To my mother’s horror, I turned out as vain as they come. I spend more on my
clothes than she would probably spend on furniture, and I own enough shoes to
start a small boutique. But it’s sort of preposterous walking out of the house
in some expensive outfit with a fabulous bag when I have a honking red zit on
my chin. As my peers are starting to talk about Botox and their first gray
hairs, I am still afflicted with acne, the plague of a teenager. I would
describe myself as a confident person, but when I’m interviewing someone
important for my job, or going to an elegant restaurant, or giving a speech, or
doing any of the other things that I feel lucky and proud I get to do in my
adult life, having a major zit is an unwelcome reminder of my awkward
adolescent self. And if I had a sense of humor about acne when I was going
through puberty, I’ve since lost it. Will I be 80 years old with white hair, a
Chanel suit, and pimples?
TRIAL AND ERROR
I’ve tried everything. In high school it was Noxzema and Clearasil; in
college Clinique astringent and Umbrian clay masks; in my 20s I used ProActiv
Solution, which did help for a while, but as always, the zits came back. I went
to dermatologists a few times, but they never offered any real solutions. The
topical treatments they gave me were so itchy and unpleasant that I never stuck
with them. And when it comes to cortisone injections, I’ve never been able to
commit to the expense and hassle of going to see a doctor for a shot every time
I have a pimple. (I’d be going every day.) I have always been unwilling to try
Accutane or any oral antibiotics prescribed to treat acne, because the side
effects are too severe. I knew a girl on Accutane whose mouth was all dry and
flaky; one imagines she was dry all over. No thank you. As vain and as much of
a shopaholic as I am, I suppose in some ways I am still my mother’s daughter.
When it comes to spending time and getting hurt, my vanity wanes. But I have
finally grasped that all the hours and dollars I’ve spent over the years
shopping for products and applying concealer and, yes, picking my zits are
adding up — to nothing. It’s time for a new solution.