How my obsession with spots became a living hell
"I know from hundreds of hours in the mirror that body confidence is a male issue too."
It’s a strange experience, buying concealer as a man. I did it the other day. I had done it before – walked into Boots, crouched down in the makeup aisle, furrowed my brow – but it never gets any less awkward.
As I write this I am wearing the concealer on the right side of my face, where an ugly patch of skin has been getting me down. I mention it not because I think I’m making a groundbreaking confession. Other men have bought concealer. I imagine they will again. But I don’t think I have ever in my life said it out loud. It has always felt safer, less shameful somehow, to pretend that it doesn’t happen. My skin and I have had a strange, unhealthy relationship for a long while. And, for a time that felt like forever, that relationship ruined my life.
I was 17 when I first began to hate my face. I don’t know exactly what made the first domino topple. It wasn’t that my skin changed; it was as though suddenly I could see it in a higher resolution. I started to believe that the person looking back at me in the mirror had skin so repulsive it should be ripped clean off. What could I do to get rid of this ugliness, to scratch the red marks out of existence? For hours I touched my skin, peered at it in every mirror from every angle, and let paranoid thoughts hound me to tears. I was convinced that everyone in my life mourned the skin I used to have. I thought they talked about my skin behind my back. My girlfriend, I told myself, was pretending to find me attractive as part of some perverse experiment.
Even now, more than ten years later, I am doing all I can to avoid typing the word ‘spots’.
People don’t talk much about how men’s minds are affected by the absurd punishment their skin takes in their teenage years. In adverts, in films and on TV, we are fed the idea that it is only women who worry about their complexion’s imperfections, and that men have more manly things going on. But there’s a reason they’ve never cast a James Bond with a spotty chin. We know that in depictions of beauty, even male beauty, spots are unwelcome. No one likes spots. And no one hated them more than I did.
Day after day, again and again, I would wash my face in hot water, silently praying: today has to be the day they leave me alone. Everyone fiddles with their skin as a teenager but on a flight back from America in 2008, I played with one almost-invisible spot for eight miserable, eternal hours until it became a dark-red scab, three times as big and five times as obvious.
I never had acne. I never had anything remotely resembling acne. And when I went to the GP - something I did at least three times in about a year - they would always tell me that they didn’t need to do anything for my skin. Why would they? It was the banal skin of a teenage boy. Not weird, not special.
Of course I knew this. I wasn’t blind. And there was a kind of relief that accompanied this calm assessment. Here was a stranger, with no incentive to dilute the truth, telling me I looked fine. As I shuffled out, for a tiny while all was well with the world. But, after I got home and closed the front door, I would look in a mirror and realise what had happened. Ah yes. It was obvious. The doctor hadn’t really been looking at my face. She was busy and, oh, of course, the light had failed to highlight the worst of my skin. Better book another appointment. Better buy another brand of cream. Better look up more bizarre solutions online. (“Toothpaste on my face? Yes I will try that, thank you.”)
When they saw my face, I hoped for a kind of confirmation from the GPs; that they might say, “Well this face is ruined. We must start again. Fetch me the skin he had as a child!” Part of me needed this more than the warm glow that reassurance might provide; it felt like what I was perpetually searching for was a perverse form of solidarity. I have always been childishly obsessed with the idea of fresh starts. The doctors, I thought, might be able to grant me one. A brand-new face.
There were pockets of time - a few days, a week here and there - when I managed to abstain from touching my face and checking my reflection in the mirror. This would improve my mood a little. If the spots didn’t exist in my mind, I thought, they might not exist on my face. I was going through one of these comparatively positive periods in 2007 when I visited Swansea University with my dad for an open day. It was late morning on a crisp blue January day, and I was feeling relatively optimistic. This meant that when I washed my hands in the bathroom I felt able to look in the mirror - as a kind of reward for my self-control.
It took seconds for me to come close to tears. Based on what was looking back at me, I couldn’t come close to comprehending how other people could bear to look at me. I was 17 years old, in a blossoming relationship, with loving parents and a happy school life, and I was almost crying because I had glanced at myself in a mirror.
It’s hard to describe the scale of this sensation without sounding hysterical. It was like nothing in my world would ever be right again; like I could change everything, be as good as I could hope to be in every other area of my life, and still never come close to being happy. My face was everything that was wrong with me. It would always be following me, always be there, and always be indifferent to my misery.
The futility was the worst thing. Spots aren’t mud on a kitchen floor; you can’t rub them out if you press hard enough. Food, contrary to received wisdom, has no effect. This means that not even altering your diet can drive them out; you can’t escape on good behaviour. If they want to, they will stay. This is how powerlessness comes to gain so much power over you.
The other horror of being hostage to your skin is how embarrassingly vulnerable you become. Trivialities hurtle around a corner and knock the wind out of you: a ‘flaw’ in the middle of your face; a photo with flash; a flippant comment from someone to whom spots are just another topic of conversation.
There was a time – a long time – when I could not imagine looking any different. And if I didn’t ever look different, how would I ever feel different? Only very slowly, as my skin began to improve in my mid-20s, did this thinking begin to fade away and my life move into the foreground. But even now, spots are my Voldemort. I can’t say the word aloud without feeling deeply uncomfortable, as though people are scanning my face for flaws. For that I feel ashamed. I am embarrassed that, as a 28-year-old man, a five-letter word still wields such power over me.
It’s hard, I think, to admit that you are consumed by ugly thoughts. Irony has become something of a default setting for men of my generation. It is not easy to do away with this convenient crutch and admit that something about yourself is depressing you. Especially in male-dominated groups, these confessions can invite ridicule. And in hindsight I am fully aware that it was ridiculous, my overreaction to a trivial problem. But the feelings weren’t. The feelings were absolutely real. And given that we are our thoughts and we are our feelings, we are reckless if we try to ignore them. I wish now that my 28-year-old self had been able to tell me in 2007 that my girlfriend was not part of an experiment and in six years she would become my wife; that everyone is always fighting an invisible battle, just like mine, in the privacy of their own head; and that, over time, every feeling eventually gives way to a new one.