Monday, June 13, 2011

Day 80: The Curiously Entwined History of Mirrors and Zits

According to The Knot's "Bridal Beauty: Countdown to Gorgeous" it's time for me to 
"Get serious about skin care: Start a good cleansing and moisturizing program, and consider consulting a dermatologist or making appointments for monthly facials."  
When reading this my first thought was, Nice! I already have a "good cleansing and moisturizing program!" Done!  Indeed, I'm fastidious in this arena, which has been the case since around 1992, when my face hit puberty. Seemingly overnight, I went from a peaches-and-cream complexion to something more closely resembling DiGiorno. Then it turned out that my mildly zitty adolescent years were only a warm-up for an inexplicable case of full-blown adult acne in my early twenties.  (cue horror film soundtrack)  

Cute cartoons and hilarious zit memoir found here.
During this time I endured the expensive frustration of failed rounds of Retin-A, Differin, topical Clindamycin, topical Benzomycin, oral Erythromycin, and oral Doxycycline (don't worry - not all at once!).  I spent inordinate amounts of time in front of the mirror, fighting urges to poke and prod, and carefully applying layers of makeup in futile attempts to hide both the acne and the flakey patches of irritated skin that emerged in reaction to harsh topical treatments.   I felt embarrassed by my skin.  I developed paranoid cleansing routines in (soon-dashed) hopes of preventative care.  (To this day I always wash my face as the final step before exiting the shower - even if this means washing it twice -, lest my hair conditioner pollute my pores.)  It was awful. 

Well, it took 2 rounds of Accutane, but things eventually came full circle and I now relish in having "good skin" - the kind I had before puberty (with the exception of some wee age spots).  Despite my newly "low-maintenance" face, I remain vigilant with skin care, as much out of habit as out of hope for clear-skinned stasis.  (FYI, the boring details of my routine can be found at the END of this post.)

Hence, the "get serious about skin care" advice from The Knot felt passe.  Yet it also got me thinking: Why do we care so much about having "perfect" skin in the first place?   These days we know that acne isn't caused by supposedly immoral behaviors, like eating a lot of chocolate or masturbating (or eating chocolate while masturbating, for that matter!).  Having acne doesn't mean you're a bad person, or even that you're dirty (indeed, no amount of cleansing will ever "cure" acne, and washing too frequently can just aggravate things).  So... what's up with all the hype about zits?  When did it start, and why?  

As a sociologist, I'm accustomed to critically analyzing our culture, questioning beliefs, habits and customs that we often take for granted as "natural."   We sociologists call this "making the familiar strange."  And so, when thinking about zits, I put on my sociologist-glasses and decided to hit the books.  What I found (with some guidance from Lisa Wade - fellow sociologist, friend,  and co-author of blog-extraordinaire Sociological Images) was this: our culture's obsession with blemish-free skin emerged as a result of increased access to.....(drum roll please!).... MIRRORS!  Yes.  MIRRORS. How perfect is that?

Check it out. In her book The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, Joan Jacobs Brumberg writes:
When the mirror became a staple of the American middle-class home at the end of the nineteenth century, attention to adolescent acne escalated, as did sales of products for the face.  Until then, pimples were primary a tactile experience, at least for the girl who had them. But all that changed in the late 1880s with the widespread adoption in middle-class homes of a bathroom sink with running water and a mirror hung above it.  [...] Mirrors made pimples more accessible, but they also stimulated greater concern about the face.  
The chapter goes on to mention that, by the 1890s, "anxiety about blemishes on the face" actually led to the popularity of hairstyles with "bangs" among adolescent girls.  (And I thought I was the sneaky genius who figured that one out!)  

Well, folks... there you have it: MIRRORS CAUSE ACNE!  
Okay, okay, maybe not.   But they've certainly contributed to our culture's obsession with clear skin.  Knowing this, I'd love to say that life without mirrors has drastically decreased my concern with having clear skin, but I have no evidence supporting this.  Instead, it's probably the opposite: having dependably clear skin (finally!) made me more willing to banish mirrors from my life. I first realized this when learning to apply makeup without a mirror, but I didn't think to mention anything at the time.  So now I know: I entered this project from a position of privilege that I'd begun to take for granted.  I'll have to keep this in mind as I consider how this experience shapes - and is continually shaped by - my body image.

As promised, below is my skincare routine, for anybody fascinated by such details. 
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ 

(You'll notice that most everything I use can be found in drugstores, and a lot of it is fragrance free and/or for sensitive skin.  I'm including links to the products, in case I've somehow inspired you to purchase.  Just remember... my skin woes only went away after I tried a bajillion prescription products prescribed by a licensed dermatologist - not from over-the-counter face wash.)

1) Mild Cleanser w/ 2% Salysylic Acid, every AM and PM. 
These days I've been using St. Ives "Naturally Clear Green Tea Cleanser," not because I'm into "natural" products (in fact, a lot of them scare me!), but because I got a great 3/$10 deal at CVS a few months ago and ended up really liking it.  I also use Cetaphil "Gentle Skin Cleanser" if my face ever feels irritated.

2) SPF15+ Sunscreen, every AM
As a fair-skinned person with a history of traumatic sunburns in childhood, I've become religious about sunscreen.  My dermatologist says it's only a matter of time before I have a malignancy, which totally sucks.  These days, thanks to my mirror-less life, I mix my sunscreen with foundation, which helps a lot with mirror-free makeup application.  This undoubtedly dilutes the strength of UVA/UVB protection, so I add a layer of Bare Escentuals "SPF 25 Mineral Veil" face powder over everything. Every little bit helps!
3) Moisturizer/Serum Combo, every PM
Now that I'm approaching my 30s and in light of past sun-damage, I've added an anti-aging serum (specifically, Fragrance Free Olay Regenerist  Daily Regenerating Serum) to the mix.  After YEARS of acne-targeting products, I can't tell you how exciting this was for me.  I don't even know how this stuff works (something about amino-peptides), but it doesn't irritate my face at all.  To stretch out the bottle, I cut it (coke-dealer style) with CeraVe "Facial Moisturizing Lotion PM," which has additional unpronounceable-but-lovely ingredients.

Note: Despite recommendations from The Knot's BBCTG list, I see no need to visit the dermatologist.  Been there.  Done that.  NOT visiting a dermatologist feels like a luxury.  That said, monthly facials could be fun if I can find a way to do it at home and on the cheap!  I'll keep you posted.

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  1. I love the logic of this--mirrors cause acne! I know myself that most of the blemishes that persisted until my early 50s were often caused by my own boredom and figuratively "picking on myself."

  2. Here I am in my mid-thirties, battling acne once again. How can I have acne AND wrinkles? I know the solution for me is birth control pills, but since the trade-off is migraines, I've decided I'd rather live with a pizza face (and chest, and upper back) that debilitating pain. Perhaps covering my mirrors is another solution?

    Then I remind myself of what my mom used to tell's not fair, and then you die.

  3. Terri - I know exactly what you mean! Talk about making mountains out of molehills....

    Marisa - yeah, simultaneous acne + wrinkles is a bitch. That said, although I've never come to terms with pimples, I've started to think that wrinkles are beautiful!

  4. I had awful skin from about 11-14 (enter Accutane pause) and then again from 19-21 (enter Accutane again - this time for good). I totally relate to the obsessive routines that linger long after the pimples are gone. It wasn't until I started dating my husband (age 24) that I finally allowed ANYONE to touch my face, my towel or my pillow, or dared to go to sleep without washing my face, even while camping / after a lot of drinking ;)

    Now I sometimes still get breakouts, and it just doesn't bother me that much anymore. Surely stressing so much about the skin makes the skin problem worse and of longer duration. I feel that there is a need for some sort of information campaign so that poor teens with zits realize that they are not from dirt/chocolate/masturbation and thus take some of the shame away from what, really, are a couple of bumps on your face and no damn big deal! But I suppose such information won't help businesses who sell expensive skin creams...

  5. I enjoy reading views from writers who seem to know how to put together an interesting informative article. That would be you. I have been enthralled by your poignant views.

  6. I swear by using Witch Hazel as a toner for my face. It keeps it soft and clear. You might try a timed facial. I buy a 20 min enzyme facial at walmart that is pretty great, and smells like pineapple.

  7. I can completely sympathize with you about your skin issues. I'm a 23 year old grad student who majored in sociology in undergrad and I love your blog and no mirrors experiment. However, if you're concerned about chemicals in products and want to use "natural" ones, you should check out the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetic Database. It allows you to look up the toxicity level of any chemicals or products you use. You'll be surprised to know that Cetaphil is one of the worst in terms of toxicity!

  8. You can't control zits and blackheads, the best suggestion is that you try to prevent it from happening.

  9. I’m already 20 and I don’t have any serious problem about my skin or in my face. Sometimes, I just have pimples but not so many, 2 o 3 sometimes and I’m thankful for that. But anyway, thanks to this article because there are lots of things I learned. Thanks for sharing!

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