My week with a face peel gave me empathy for those who suffer from disfiguring acne

~Why do bad things always happen to me, Episode 1~

“What happened to her face?” Is a question which I’m sure arose upon my entering into any public space. My tender brown cheeks were coated with a thick layer of dark scabs, which were at one time bright pink streaks of chemical burn. My forehead was smooth but covered in a thick layer of shea butter, and my eyes were bloodshot and dejected. How, you ask, did this happen?

This travesty was by no means my doing, nor did I have any involvement in the giant dermatologic blunder that would seal my fate. I was receiving a “fayshal” (as we say in California) as a benefit for my summer job working in a salon. The service was free, and uncharted territory for someone like me who is unfamiliar with professional procedures such as eyebrow waxes and “extractions.” In all honesty, I don’t even believe in facials nor their ability to perfect the skin. I think they are nothing but a sickly satisfying way for wealthy middle aged women to spend their money. Nonetheless, my aesthetician was newly licensed and raring to practice her skills in reforming my dry, sensitive, and mildy pimpled skin. I feigned interest.

“*gasp* ‘Oh my god’”is not something you want to hear when someone looks at your face mid treatment. It is what I was lucky enough to hear through the incredible burning sensation I felt on my skin. I had figured this feeling was a normal part of the exfoliation process. Boy was I wrong.

Long story short the chemicals used seared through my face at an alarming rate and corroded my skin. This happened because of my use of prescription acne cream which thins the skin and lowers its defenses. Briana (the aesthetician) had asked if I was on any medications but failed to adjust the treatment accordingly. Rookie mistake.

Giant red blotches of erosion spread across my face like lava, causing me pain and massive anxiety. Would I have a face tomorrow? Would this scar? Would life as I know it come to an end? After many google searches and consultations with my mom who is a practicing PA, we determined that the peel had simply gone “deeper than expected” (which to me sounds like a twisted sexual joke), that the peeling process over the next few days would be gruesome, and that I would probably be left with smooth skin underneath. I had accidentally just gotten type of peel that old ladies get to erase years worth of wrinkles off of their face. Great, by the end of this I’ll look 12!

Then came the shame. The “my face is going to look totally fucked for a week” kind of shame. In the absence of a sleek, healthy looking face, I experienced complete emotional and moral decay.

I stared at myself in the mirror for hours. Huddled in my bedroom, I texted my mom furiously as catastrophic thoughts whizzed. Not only was I sure it would scar, but I had never seen myself so disfigured. Though I’m not one to recognize my attractiveness, it suddenly became obvious in retrospect. I didn’t realize what a pleasing face I had until it was suddenly hideous.

Leaving the house was excruciating. A couple of days later my housemate finally convinced me to go to Safeway (and I damn well needed to because in my state of emergency I had run out of food). I had an absolutely miserable time. As I slumped through the aisles in my sweats, fluorescent lights shone down on me and illuminated my shame. I could feel people taking second looks as I passed by. I shuddered every time I sensed eyes on my scabbed cheeks. I heard their thoughts. “Is she a burn victim or is that cystic acne? Either way, YIKES.”

Every ounce of confidence I had in interacting with strangers was gone. I couldn’t make eye contact with anyone. When the guy checking out my groceries told me to have a nice day I didn’t look up at him. I grabbed my things and ran, forgetting what I was even there for because I had spent the entire time thinking about my face.

I was entirely consumed by my disfigurement. My femininity, flirtatiousness, and humor in interacting with others was gone. That’s why I’m writing this, actually. I feel I walked in the shoes of a woman with severe acne. It’s something I had never felt tangibly before, but I was thrust into a paradigm where my physical appearance worked against me. Where was I supposed to get my confidence, or my joy, knowing that others could not possibly find me desirable? Furthermore: what do these thoughts reveal about the disproportionate effect that a woman’s looks have on her social interactions?

A few square inches of skin transformed my life and my integrity. No longer a happy-go-lucky girl seeking adventure, I was stuck at home for days on end, paralyzed by embarrassment. My face turned me into a depressed agoraphobic. Next time I see someone with a severe skin disorder, I will know they are just like me. It is crushingly hard to be a woman in this society. And it is crushingly hard to be a woman who is imperfect.

Editors Note: Josie’s skin has healed to its pre-injured state. Her psyche, however, is still in the process of healing.

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