There’s considerable irony, to me at least, in the fact that not long after I discovered the joys of make-up, I was diagnosed with rosacea.
My face erupted in red blotches not unlike a Yayoi Kusama infinity room, accompanied by little bumps that never cleared, and a general flush that made me look like the human incarnation of a Looney Tunes cartoon thermometer. What could hide it? Make-up. What set it off? Removing make-up. Hooray!
Rosacea, for those not damned to be in the know, is a chronic skin condition affecting the face whose symptoms can run the gamut from a cute blush to skin-thickening that leaves you with a nose that looks like W. C. Fields’ famous honker. In my case, I was hit with subtype 2, giving me flushing as well as occasional papules (a grimmer way of saying “red bumps”).
I don’t often like to compare myself to Lena Dunham (certainly not her bank account), but in my frantic scramble to read everything I could about rosacea I saw that she, too, had recently been diagnosed with the condition.
Around the same time I was first slathering my face in Rosex in an attempt to slow the onslaught, she wrote: “I have been forced to finally mourn the long, slow hit on my self-image. I thought my adolescent attitude, the take-no-prisoners approach to my own look and form, could carry me through the onslaught of critical attention. I thought I could intellectualise it away. But I can’t.”
Like Dunham, I had always had great skin. Nothing could dent my peaches-and-cream complexion, zits were a “once every six months or so” affair, and when I said that all I used to maintain my face was water and a cheap moisturiser, I wasn’t lying.
Rosacea, on the other hand, made me look like a grumpy, frazzled mess; I went from the ideal #nomakeup #nofilter visage to something not out of place in a New Idea “STARS: THEY LOOK LIKE SHIT!!!” exposé. What had once been a tendency to blush daintily in moments of stress or excitement became a fully-fledged tomato face. Anxiety, spicy food, intense workouts, hot trams: you name it, it sets me off. Forgetting to patch test any new face products left me with flaming flare-ups that burned like the face of the sun.
Initially I was profoundly bummed. Much like a puppy, rosacea is for life, not just for Christmas. All the unscented cleansers and gentle moisturisers I now had to use felt like punishment after a life spent blithely choosing the moisturiser that smelled the most like a dessert (ironically, my love of cheap and cheerful products may have set it off), and I worried about how my bright red polka dots would come across in meetings or on dates.
In other words, total madness.
I was recently sent a press release detailing the findings of a survey carried out by The Jojoba Company; of the 1000 Australian women they surveyed, 44 per cent said they had an “embarrassing” skin condition, and one in 10 had hidden a skin condition from their partner.
While that’s just a small sample, I don’t doubt it reflects a broader reality: our skin freaking out freaks us out, big time.
Why is it that in our teenage years things like acne and dermatitis are waved off as a fact of life, but post-18, we expect to have perfect adult faces until we hit the deathbed with little more than a few light smile lines six decades later?
The tabloid news panopticon still sneers at celebrities who are “unfortunate” enough to have adult acne, rosacea, psoriasis or any other “imperfections”.
When model and singer Starlie Smith appeared on Dolce & Gabbana’s runway earlier this year during an acne flare up, the response was caustic enough that she had to post a rejoinder on Instagram.
As actress Cynthia Nixon said, years into her rosacea diagnosis, “For whatever psychological reason, we value clear skin.”
Clear skin says “I’m healthy and successful!” Spots and dots and redness say “I’m a slovenly mess”. Many advanced rosacea sufferers, with their red cheeks and noses, are assumed to be raging alcoholics.
It’s hard to know how to turn this mindset around: everything in the beauty industry (yes, even the dreaded “real beauty” one) is geared towards fixing, hiding, shrinking and reversing.
I’m certainly not about to push for everyone to go out and enter hot sauce-eating contests in order to trigger a mass rosacea flare-up in the interests of visibility, but I do think there’s something to be said for trying to relax into whatever our faces are doing at any given time.
It’s bad enough that the beauty industry, gossip press and, by extension, other people judge those of us whose faces don’t look perfect at every moment; when we do it to ourselves, it’s downright sad.
And the next time I eat or do something that makes my face turn into a polka-dot wonder, I’m not going to sulk in my room with a towel over my head: I’m putting on a nice outfit (and SPF 50+), and I’m going the hell out.