HOW I LEARNED TO LOVE MY SKIN
This one is for 14-year-old Maneet, who would’ve never believed she’d ever share her journey about overcoming her skin-related self-esteem issues. This is also for any South Asian queen who has ever doubted herself. You have always been enough.
Recently, I read How We Love: Notes on a life, by Australian feminist, Clementine Ford. It’s about the different forms of love in her life, including self-love. In the epilogue, Clementine shares a heart-warming note to her younger self. Reading these final pages made me reflect on my self-love journey and how it was impacted by my turbulent, and at times, all-consuming relationship with my skin. I know that my story is one that many women, especially South Asian women, will be familiar with; reflecting a broader societal obsession with controlling women’s appearances and enforcement of beauty standards.
Childhood: the Beginning of my Skincare Journey
It all began when I was twelve, during a trip to India during my summer holidays. I’d started getting bumps on my head that I’d not paid much attention to. I’d been more preoccupied eating my favourite foods my grandmothers had prepared for me. While my younger self was unconcerned about the growing acne on my forehead, my relatives felt differently and made every effort to point out the bumps whenever they had a chance. So twelve-year-old Maneet did what she knew best and asked to see a doctor which led to a series of topical treatments, and eventually, scarring once the bumps disappeared.
Looking back on how this experience unfolded, it’s clear that I was socially conditioned to be self-conscious about my skin and that my related self-esteem issues stemmed from the repeated criticism I received from the people closest to me. Although I didn’t consciously absorb the pointing, the comments, or the unsolicited ‘advice’ my relatives gave at the time, they laid the foundation for the next part of my journey which turned out to be a toxic cocktail of self-esteem issues in an attempt to meet impossible beauty standards.
I wish I could share with my younger self the knowledge I’ve since learned that could have saved me from the pain and trauma that I experienced, but I’m grateful for the lessons I’ve learned about myself, my skin and healing along the way.
Adolescence: Caught in the Middle
I’m now on the cusp of being fourteen, excited yet nervous to be going to a new school. I’ve been dabbling with some skincare products, but it’s not a priority on the list of things I’ve been told to look out for as a new student. My confidence at this point in time was as high as it could be for a fourteen-year-old girl, but this slowly changed as a result of being in a new environment which I grew to resent and cope with the resulting anxiety it caused me.
I had major FOMO over not being with friends at my old school, and this was reflected on my skin. In fact, it was so evident that a guy in my class apparently told my friends that, ‘it looks like Maneet has Ebola on her face.’ I wasn’t present when this was said, but when the comment was later relayed to me I was shattered.
I spent the entirety of high school with extremely low self-esteem thinking I was ugly and would never be ‘pretty enough’. I didn’t make an effort to make male friends, out of fear of being judged for my skin/acne. Instead, I turned to natural remedies that claimed to get rid of pimples, watched countless YouTube videos, trying one natural face mask after another, but nothing worked, and at times, seemed to make things worse. It probably didn’t help that I followed countless celebrities on different social media platforms who I didn’t realise had the help of a styling team, amazing lighting and professional makeup artists to make them look flawless in every photo.
These self-esteem issues continued into 2019, through my first year of university, where my self-confidence hit an all-time low. It was also around this time I began researching topical treatments and dermatology. I had a rocky start and initially fell for some ineffective but well-marketed beauty schemes that have been known to lure in customers. Despite all the disappointments and setbacks I encountered, I’m also grateful for what I learned about this process and about myself as a person. It was through these missteps that I learned the importance of being thorough about researching what I use on my skin and how I interact with and test new skincare products before using them. This now brings us to the present.
Womanhood: The Now
You should know that I’m the happiest I’ve ever been, but that came with some much-needed changes to my lifestyle and mindset. ‘The Now’ began with me creating healthy digital boundaries for my social media usage on online platforms, like Instagram.
I’ve unfollowed most of the Bollywood celebrities that had previously filled my feed with a rigid, monolithic portrayal of beauty. I also keep track of how much time I spend scrolling as I’ve found excessive screen time has a negative impact on my overall wellbeing.
I still use the app, but now I’m more conscious about:
• who I follow, and
• ensuring that their content aligns with my values, and
• that I have a genuine appreciation for their work/content.
Part and parcel of using Instagram are the appearance-altering filters. I’ve been making peace with how these filters show a distorted version of reality, and my awareness of this fact has made all the difference in how I view the app and its content.
What’s helped me heal over the course of my journey is:
• working on my loving myself for more than just my outer appearance
• understanding impact of using filters has had on my self-image and self-esteem, and
• why it’s important to not internalise those images as reality.
A big challenge in my journey has been the constant criticism of my appearance. It still happens now, but when it does, I’m able to see it for what it is (someone else’s insecurities being projected) and have been learning to let them go.
But I’m also human.
On bad days I’ll remember a mean comment a random Indian aunty said to me at a party 6 months ago. I’ll begin to critique myself and (momentarily) believe the negative commentary, after all, it’s what I see when I look in the mirror. What helps me to stop this cycle of negativity replaying in my mind is remembering the advice my Mum gave me after expressing my frustrations about my appearance. She said, “if you don’t have anything nice to say to someone, especially their physical appearance, then it’s best that you don’t say anything at all.” And reminded me that this includes what we say about ourselves too.
As much as I hate to admit it, my mum is right (which according to her, is all of the time). Thanks to her and the media I choose to engage with, I’ve been consciously teaching myself to practice self-love, being kind to myself and unlearning the toxic rhetoric I absorbed about beauty and body image; but it’s something I struggle with thanks to South Asia’s obsession with beauty standards derived from media, like Bollywood, which has been so deeply embedded and idealised in our cultural mindset by successive generations, it’s hard to fully escape or imagine what a world would look like without these oppressive standards hanging over our heads.
But I like to remember that part of this practice of being kind to myself and self-love/acceptance is knowing that I’ll get it wrong sometimes, and learning to forgive myself when this happens because nobody’s perfect.
I still have moments where seeing someone on the street or a celebrity online will trigger my inner critic, that nasty voice that remembers all the horrible things that people have said to me or about me and replays it in my mind, over and over again. And sometimes that vitriol is directed at other people too. But when these moments appear, I choose to break this cycle. I don’t give in to the negativity. I don’t want to make anyone else feel the way I did growing up. Instead, I choose to focus on what about them I love and appreciate because life is too short to dwell on hate.
And like my Mum says, sometimes not saying anything is the best thing to say. I’ve found simply and genuinely asking, ‘How have you been?’ radiates so much more positivity than critiquing another’s appearance. I know it’s what I’d have preferred hearing when I turned up to a party in a lehenga that I was excited to wear, rather than someone pointing out my skin’s flaws and tearing my appearance and confidence apart.
My Mum’s advice is also a reminder that we never truly know the reasons behind someone’s appearance. It could be genetic, temporarily caused by stress or hormones, or a medical-related reason. Sometimes what a person is going through is outside of their control, so why should they be criticised for it? How is that kind or fair? It’s so important that we normalise that it’s not okay to comment on another person’s body/appearance and damage their self-esteem.
Currently, I’m a 3rd year nursing student. During my discussion with a senior nurse about my nursing goals and view on healthcare, she told me her perspective on nursing practice that I found helpful and relevant to my skin/self-love journey and healing. She said, ‘the patient outcome is personal, uncertain and different for everyone. So we can’t just solely focus on the outcome, it’s about the journey we take our patients on to reach the outcome they have identified for them and their current circumstances.’ This was important for me to hear professionally, but it also changed my personal perspective on healing others and myself. I apply this principle to healing from all the distorted views of beauty society has normalised, that’s the journey that I’m on, though the outcome I’ve identified for myself is to heal the health of my skin. Yours may be different.
My journey so far has been complex and layered. Presently, I don’t wear makeup regularly for my skin’s health. Some might say not wanting to wear makeup is lazy, but frankly, those people don’t matter – the health of my skin is more important. I’m allowing myself to be on the journey that’s right for me and my skin’s health. If your story is like mine, maybe you also want that space and time to heal your skin, use fewer products on your recovering skin, and remove yourself from environments that are critical of your appearance. Or maybe your journey looks different to mine and that’s okay. It might look like rebuilding your self-confidence in other ways or it might not. I don’t know about your experience or your journey. It is yours and yours alone, despite what society tells you. You are the expert on your lived experience. But I’d love to hear about it if you’d like to share.
If there’s one thing I’d like you to take away from this article, it’s to allow yourself to go on the journey for the outcome you’ve been seeking. It may seem daunting at first, but you deserve to give yourself this opportunity; you deserve the space to heal and grow because you have always been and will always be enough.
Written by Maneet Hora
Edited by Erika Menezes and Sehar Gupta