“How has your body image changed since being married?”
This is my third answer in a seven part series of scribbled notes, stories, struggles, and truth I’ve discovered about body image since marrying someone who sees me all the time now. With my history in this area, I didn’t have a head start so I’ve had a lot to learn.
If I had a dollar for every pimple I’ve had, AJ and I could stop saving for a down payment and finally buy a house.
But I used to rather live in a garden shed than to have a zit ever touch the soil of my skin.
There was a 13 year old girl I knew who felt this way. She lived in a medium-sized house in a small bedroom room upstairs with slanted ceilings and one window. That night the local Youth Group had one of those hang out events and—don’t tell anyone because she only told certain people—but she had a crush on one of the boys who’d be there. She was short, little but not as tiny as her friends, and her light chestnut hair didn’t have a strand that her Chi straightener didn’t iron together. She stood in her bedroom, behind her strangled clothes littered the carpet and in front of her was a dark wooden oval mirror hanging on the wall.
The white cotton shirt she adjusted the hem of had only been worn in the dressing room. On the front was a burst of jade green in chunky graphics and the blurred white words, “Aeropostale.” She popped a necklace off its cardboard backing, clumsily with no fingernails but cautious not to break it. It was silver, looser than a choker, and smiled down in three layers. On each layer, different sized stars hung down. She had saved this shirt-necklace combination for this night.
I don’t know why she put on her glasses then. She recently got them after sitting in the back row of Advanced Math class and finding out the numbers on the whiteboard looked like fuzzy caterpillars and the girl next to her was tired of interpreting. She didn’t wear the glasses often, still used to how the world looked without them. I guess she wanted to see clearly how pretty she looked. How everything she envisioned came together. Maybe it was the nerves of having a crush for the first time. She wondered what her crush would see when she walked into Youth Group.
In a heated red the risen bumps clustered and bubbled across her face, now sharpened around the edges. The glasses added a high definition she didn’t know someone could see from far away. Her old vision blurred and buffed out her skin from that distance, giving her the false hope you could only see the acne from up close. No. Her face looked allergic to the very air she was breathing. There was this shock, this wind-knocked out disbelief, before the thoughts jolted her by the wrists. See? You aren’t as beautiful as you thought. How scary. That this is how people saw you and you didn’t even know? What did you do wrong?
The shock, after its initial splash, dripped down the sides of her heart and at the bottom it boiled there until it condensed into a thick shame. With a finger, the letters U-G-L-Y were traced out before it hardened and the shame was cemented there for a long time. So long she forgot why it was there in the first place.
Acne was the enemy and it seemed everyone else hated it too. The war begun. Proactiv for a birthday gift. Buying the Clique 3-step system with Christmas money during an annual girls shopping trip. Watching YouTube videos for the best face washes and spot treatments. Trying her dad’s suggestions from the 80’s that were blue liquid and burned of alcohol. Buying anything new that came out from Clean ’n Clear.
AJ married that girl, 13 years later.
When we got engaged my worst fear was having acne walking down the aisle.
In the spring I took an online quiz and sent in pictures of my face broken out in places to an unnamed internet dermatologist. He emailed me a spendy prescription with a risk of birth defects. I decided to save the money and possibly my future child and get on birth control instead.
The birth control made my face predictable for the first time in my life (Except for my mood, I wasn’t on it for very long). The chances of me having a huge break out on my wedding was unlikely. Each day my skin got clearer. It was the first time in my life I felt what it was like to wake up and not have to worry about my face, yet I still worried anyways.
I heard once about something called, ‘phantom fat’. Sometimes when people lose an extreme amount of weight they sometimes still think they carry it with them, everywhere they go. In that moment I mentally put together the phrase ‘phantom acne,’ but it’s already a word and a condition that haunts people like me. It’s a form of torture you don’t easily forget, sitting at your desk with angry red, maybe bleeding, blisters on your forehead during your fragile and formative years as a girl. Beautiful was never the word that came to mind when I saw my face then. In my mind I sometimes think my acne is as bad as it was when I was 13.
I’ve only seen AJ with one zit on his face in his life. It was when we were dating and it looked like a laser pointer was shining right in the middle of his forehead. “I don’t normally get acne,” he said slightly agitated, rubbing it lightly. He put his McBride’s trucker hat snug as we headed out the door. I quietly sympathized, hoping his pimple wouldn’t make him notice mine extra, “It’s annoying, but I know it’ll go away eventually,” he said.
I nodded but I didn’t know what he was talking about. An exclamation point crinkled between my eyebrows. How could he be so casual about this? Acne was the end of the world.
I wish I could say I healed from acne outside of marriage, but I didn’t. I could’ve! But I didn’t. I was used to hiding so that’s what I did until I rested my freshly washed cheek on the pillow next to AJ and I had no where else to turn except to the other side of the bed.
Marriage has been a special sort of exposure therapy for my acne. I suppose it makes sense I would need that. Acne was something I feared and I needed to face it in order to get over it.
The wooden oval mirror isn’t hanging on the wall, but held by my bearded man with crescent hazel eyes. At first, I tried to turn, wiggle, adjust out of view so AJ can’t see my face up close. It was so odd, so out of place, my contortions and hair shoved purposely over my chin, that I had to explain to him why.
I was forced to say the words out loud, which are almost more embarrassing than having them. Zit. Pimple. Acne. Breakout. Blemish felt safer for some reason. I cringe. Saying the words is like a highlighter to each one on my face. A middle school anxiety lingered until I bit the side of my fingernail.
“Does it bother you?”
AJ looked at my face like he looked at his, shrugging, “They’ll go away eventually.”
That might’ve been my problem too. I never believed they’d go away.
AJ keeps holding up the mirror. Whenever I look, he points the reflection to heaven where my identity and face was made in the first place. I am the Lord’s. I am not the clarity of my skin—I know because I have seen AJ look at me and still love me. Every time that happens I think the old cement foundation in my heart cracks and crumbles off into hell, where it came from.
It hasn’t been an easy thing to face. It still isn’t. But the more I look, the more I trust, and the less I am afraid. When I am less afraid, acne has less control over me. As scary as it feels sometimes, it’s been better to be seen with acne and still be loved, than to hide with acne and live assuming I won’t be.
I’d hate to hear 13 year old Molly’s reaction to finding out that 26 year old Molly still has to deal with breakouts and blemishes. I can already hear the warm straightener slam on her desk and the bed springs ache from the sudden flop of despair.
However, I’d really love to see her reaction if I told her she’d eventually be okay with having acne. I don’t think she’d believe me—maybe she still doesn’t some days.
So eventually, hypothetically, if someone offered me money for every zit I had we might not need to live in a garden shed after all. Because since I’ve been married (to my forever crush) I learned that acne is not actually the enemy—the fear of acne is.
I have nothing to fear.
I know now I can face it and I’ll be okay.