After a day out in the city, my friends and I gathered lazily around our common room swiping through the photos we’d taken. “Look at this one! It’s cute, should I post it?” One of them exclaimed, stretching her arm out to show me her phone. “Stop moving, let me see,” I laughed, holding her hand steady. It was a really nice group photo, even though sunlight was beating on our faces, making us squint a little. But then I looked at myself.

We all do this when inspecting group shots, and for a moment I was stunned. “Oh my god, look at me,” I said, zooming in on my face. I was grinning, leaning on one of my roommates, but I was more focused on my skin. My skin looked rough along my cheeks, faint red bumps that peeked out from my foundation. “Do I always look like this?” I asked, in despair.

Skin problems and acne were not at all new to me, but I had just turned 20. Wasn’t that period of my life supposed to be over? I had a brief period of respite in the past two years where my skin cleared up. I had assumed that the days of imperfections and waking up with red splotches were over and that my skin finally decided to act right, but I was wrong. It came back with a vengeance, and I tried almost everything possible to return to ‘normal’. 

I cycled through different topical treatments, face-washes, and diet changes to little avail. I didn’t like to bring it up to anyone because I was afraid of drawing attention to something I already assumed was my most prominent feature. Plus, I dreaded the classic answer of “just drink water!”

I always heard of other people taking these pills called Accutane. Everybody I knew who spoke about it, made it sound like a miracle drug. I remember a friend enthusiastically telling me that she noticed her nose getting smaller as a result of taking the medicine. But I always stood against it, because I had also heard stories of liver failure and other scary side effects. I swore I would never put beauty over my health, would I really damage my organs just to look ‘better’? I was convinced it wasn’t my risk.

However, as my acne refused to fade away, with even the Ordinary failing to give me any results, I began to cave in. At first the dermatologist hesitated to prescribe me the strong treatment as she didn’t think my skin issues were as severe as they seemed to be in my head. After all, this is a drug that is only supposed to be a last resort given how potent it is and the way it completely dries out the skin. But I insisted. So I started taking Accutane.

From then on, I went about my day with perpetually cracked lips and dizziness that would come and go. But it was all worth it, because after two months, my skin started to clear. I was beyond elated. A typical timeline with Accutane was six months, on a gradually higher and higher dose, so I continued to take the pills even as my skin grew drier and drier and my hair started to fall. But my monthly blood tests were coming out fine, so I knew I wasn’t at risk of anything serious.

My wake-up call finally came when I woke up with swollen legs, my body speckled with red dots. I had suddenly gotten a severe allergic reaction to the medicine. That was when I knew it had to stop.

When did I get so carried away? When did perfect skin become so important to me that I put my health at risk? I really got lost in the ‘beauty is pain’ mantra and forgot that my ultimate priority should be my wellbeing. I’m just thankful that it was a lower-risk health scare that brought me back to my senses, as it could have been a lot worse. 

This experience showed me the drastic measures and sacrifices women make to achieve a perfect look. Most women’s skin acts up, and that’s normal. It’s natural. We weren’t all made to have porcelain skin, that’s just bullshit made to sell us dozens of pots of clay masks and acids over serums.

Skincare is important, but it doesn’t have to be so high-stakes.  All it can take is something simple like seeing your imperfections in the mirror or what you see as an unflattering photo to launch you into a possibly dangerous path.

I’ve been there, and I can tell you it’s not worth it at all. 

  • Amal Als

    Amal Al Shamsi is a writer with a BA in Literature from New York University Abu Dhabi, interested in the study of marginality in modern and contemporary fiction. She is passionate about integrating other mediums into her writing, such as film, visual art, and music as she engages with the cultural dialogue around the world.