Woman Wonder: How I Learned to Wear My Bumps Like Jewelry
One woman’s incredibly inspiring story about self-acceptance, and how K-beauty helped get her there.
“I’m just so sorry about your face.”
I gazed at my dermatologist. I had come in to get a mole checked — the mole had turned out fine, and we were now on the topic of the bumps on my face. Since they looked a bit like basal cell carcinomas, it made sense to talk about them, but I had not asked for her cosmetic opinion. In fact, I had said at the outset, “I don’t care about the cosmetics. Just tell me if I have cancer.”
Most of my bumps are a type of benign tumor called trichoepithelioma. My dad has trichoepitheliomas, too, but only a few, only around his nose, and without the additional blood supply that causes redness. I hit the trichoep jackpot and ended up with a pool of rosy, bumpy skin on each side of my nose as well as scattered hard, skin-colored bumps all over my face. They are not dangerous — they are basically misbehaving hair follicles — but they are visible and there is no cure.
“I’m just so sorry about your face.”
I was born with smooth, normal baby skin. By mid-adolescence, between the acne and the tumors, I had the complexion of a plucked and bloody chicken. Because beauty was never particularly highly valued in my house, I was less bothered than other girls might have been. (This is not to say no one told me I was beautiful. They did. This is to say my mom was always so powerful in realms other than standard feminine beauty that I just didn’t think it was particularly important. You want to see my idea of beauty, watch my mother’s sun-lined face and 65-year-old arms as she paddles an Olympic flatwater kayak across an Oregon lake.)
I figured since it was impossible for me to be beautiful, I’d just focus on other things. Books. Sports. Writing. And the truth is I’ve been happy with those things, and without believing myself a beauty, for a long time. It’s just that in order to achieve that happiness, I had to live as though I didn’t have a face.
There are two levels of acceptance. Level one, which is hard enough, is This appears to be reality. Dammit. Oh well.
Level two is I am ready to love this reality.
When I wrote off the possibility that I might ever be beautiful and decided to have a good life anyway, I achieved level one of acceptance. This is where I was when I saw that dermatologist. Level two — loving my skin exactly the way it is — is a much more recent development.
K-beauty is where the magic happened.
For years, whenever I had a skincare phase, my mindset was oppositional. I thought of my bumpy, acne-prone skin as a thing to be beaten into submission. My face was my opponent. My goal was victory. From that perspective, who cares if something hurts? If it hurts, it’s probably working, right? I would read articles and look at advertisements and buy into the hype of some product. This scrub is sure to clear out those pores. That lotion looks harsh enough for my problem skin.
Needless to say, the results were not good. And so skincare stayed a phase, and each time I got tired of warring against my body, I’d move on to something else. (I am heavily into phases. Some of my most recent are lifting weights, baking, trying out churches, and gardening.)
About a year ago a friend of mine posted about her multi-step Korean-inspired skincare routine. I clicked on the link, went down the rabbit hole, and landed in K-beauty wonderland. Once I got my bearings I found — like Alice — that I had options. There were communities focused on perfection and communities focused on love. There were writers thinking earnestly about cultural appropriation and writers unabashedly making money on racist stereotypes. There were sites where science was queen and sites all about the woo. At each fork I chose what felt best to my heart.
Love. Anti-racism. A humorous hybrid of science and woo.
A few months ago I finally began taking tender care of my skin. I started with sunscreen, because that’s what everyone says to do, and I also ordered some cleansers that wouldn’t strip my face. I realize here in the Tapisphere there’s nothing revolutionary about sunscreen and a low-pH cleanser, but listen: For a woman whose attitude toward skincare has for decades been at best indifferent, at worst hostile, it is really something to begin to feel protective instead.
I still have bumps. I will have bumps for the rest of my life. What I also have now is a love for my own skin, exactly the way it is, and a desire to nourish it.
I owe you all my thanks for this new love. Michelle from Lab Muffin demystified product descriptions; now I think critically about what I want and feel comfortable ignoring hype. Cat Cactus taught me it’s possible to be dehydrated and oily at the same time; now I pat hydrators into my cheeks twice a day, and smile at myself while I’m doing it. Jude Chao showed me it’s OK to have high standards for my products, to listen closely to what my skin wants, and to treat it like a princess sometimes. Now … I treat my skin like a princess.
Some days I think of my bumps like diamonds. I’ve always loved badass babes with facial piercings; what if these were jewels? I work with young children and young children tell the truth, so I know people notice my skin. And so what? If I want to have a rich and gorgeous joyous life — and I do — I cannot hide my face. I might as well just let it shine.
By K-beauty standards, my skin is still largely a mystery. I haven’t figured out how to repair my moisture barrier or what ingredients make me go red. My attitude toward the mystery has changed, though. Rather than frustration, I feel fascination. I also feel a certain sense of peace. I am no longer pretending my face doesn’t matter. Every time I open a bottle of something that smells delicious and tap it in gently, looking into my own green eyes and smiling at my own self, I am dropping a coin into the well where new wisdom lives. I can flunk classic beauty and still be worth caring for.
I forgave that dermatologist, by the way. She wasn’t trying to make me feel unbeautiful; I was just too different from her other patients for her to adjust with grace. She had a hard time believing I was OK with my skin the way it was. Imagine if she knew that even if I had the choice of removing my bumps, I might rather spend that money on a pretty teapot and some good new books!
If someone told me today there was a zero-risk, completely free, results-guaranteed way I could have a smooth, clear complexion forever, I might take them up on that. But I would probably ask first whether someone else might want that procedure more — because I’m doing just fine with my jewels.
How about you? Has any beauty lesson ever rocked you to your core? Where are you on your skin acceptance journey? What makes you feel wonder?