Acne: A Villain, An Accomplice, And A Bridge To My Bloodlines
Under white beauty standards, we try to moralize and conquer “bad” skin. I have been trying to conquer my acne for more than half my life.
By Qurratulain “Q” Sajid
When I got my first pimple at 11 years old, I parted my hair all the way to the left to cover it. I kept tracing my finger over this red bump trespassing on my left cheek. I didn’t understand why or how this formation grew on my face, but I grew determined to conquer it. And in this quest, acne taught me brutal lessons in self-worth, body dysphoria, and how individually trying to heal from colonialism is tied to the collective healing process.
As a teenager, I used disturbingly drying and abrasive anti-acne products. My mother recommended home remedies and face masks passed down through generations, but I rejected them all. I resented the ingredients they contained, which included things like aloe and turmeric. Aloe was a messy plant that came in unsuspecting green tubs. And turmeric masks stained everything yellow. It was a mask used for brides and I did not want to be a bride, so I rejected turmeric’s healing powers.
Back then, and even now, everyone had an unsolicited treatment, a cure, an antidote for me to try to rid myself of this vilified “bad” skin condition resulting in pustules and blackheads on my chin and cheeks, whiteheads around my mouth, and inflamed red cystic pimples on my jawline.
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When I was 20, I was madly in love with a dude. I was convinced we had a soulmate-level connection, and having the stamp of approval from his family meant the world to me. When I had the opportunity to meet his mom, I wanted to appear worthy of loving and being loved by her son. After the meeting, I asked him what she thought about me and among some positive reviews, he texted me, “There is one other thing she said, but I feel too embarrassed to even share it.” My heart began to panic. I began preparing for her searing critiques about me being too brown or too loud or too dominating. Instead, he shared, “She said you are pretty, but you would be really pretty if you didn’t have such bad acne.” I could feel his remorse and shame. I immediately regretted badgering him for this piece of information. I also instantly categorized acne as a major villain in my love life.
Under colonial beauty standards, acne holds moral weight. It is seen as a reflection of a person’s class status, hygiene, and access to healthcare. In my mid-20s when I began going for weekly painful facials, a facialist told me, “People will think you are lazy and dirty if you continue to have such bad skin.” Wiping away my tears, she plainly declared, “Beauty is pain.” Receiving messages like this in my late 20s made me feel it was time to control my “destiny” with acne. I bought expensive creams and products, and went through all the treatments—from spironolactone to birth control—sworn by doctors and celebrities alike. As a middle-class college-educated woman, I decided to invest my money in “beauty.”
And beauty is what I have been after. And with my cis, thin, able-bodied, lighter-skinned Desi self, I have been able to collude long enough with whiteness to be deemed “desirable.”
My ancestors on the Indian sub-continent have strived for “perfect” skin (read: colonial beauty standards). To be without blemishes, wrinkles, pores, facial/body hair, dark spots, and other humanly features is the criteria for having “good skin”, and it is also a byproduct of colonialism. The search for good skin—desirable skin—is skin that must be bright (read: light), tight, and capable of being managed and disciplined into submission. “Good” skin must be easily conquered.
This battle continues as I reach my 30s. Sometimes that toxic voice still rings through my ears. I don’t ignore or silence this voice. I try to talk to her and understand why she is so committed to controlling her skin to be “good” rather than thanking the inflammation for its protection. Inflammation on the skin is the body defending itself against a perceived threat.
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As a $4.92 billion enterprise that is expected to increase to $7.35 billion in 2025, the acne industry profits off of us trying to conquer our skin. Seeing as 85% of ALL people experience some form of acne at some point in their life, it is a viable colonial business. Don’t get me wrong, I adore skincare products. Yes, they prey on my colonial anxieties. But now that I don’t try to punish my skin, I try to understand what is making my skin feel threatened or uncared for. I’ve upgraded to a ritualistic skincare routine that is not just “pampering” or “self-care,” rather it is a way to tenderly armor myself, my skin, and my spirit. It is a way to offer myself self-tenderness without any attachment to a specific outcome.
At almost 30 years old, I still get cystic break-outs, have deep indentations from scars, and an uneven skin tone, but now I surrender to my skin’s needs. And I do it with the help of my ancestors, choosing products with magical healing ingredients they already knew about. Now, knowing that acne is hereditary and part of my bloodline makes me feel connected to all those before me who had acne and all those after me who will inevitably have acne. Acne is not the villain in our lives, but rather it is all the oppressive racialized, gendered, and classed markers white supremacy has tied to acne that contribute to our collective wounding. I hope future generations shift their relationship to their skin from colonial and punitive to responsive and compassionate.
As an ancestor in training, I know I am still trying to make that shift. I often find myself wearing my hair back without any foundation, baring it all. Not to be brave or make a political statement, but to let my skin breathe fully without manipulating it or trying to justify its existence. I let my scars be a map of my battle with acne—surrendering to its many lessons.
Qurratulain “Q” Sajid is a Muslim femme of color who was raised by the Midwest and is rooted in the Bay Area. She is a healing justice practitioner, resource mobilizer, and biryani enthusiast. She believes liberation must be embodied so we can become more free in this realm and the next.
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