Living with acne has made clear to me the source of real beauty.
She looked up at me with her head cocked slightly. She was a fourth-grade know-it-all named Destiny, and I was her camp counselor.
"Um, no offense," she said in the vaguely snotty tone common to fourth-grade girls, "but you have a lot of zits."
A few of her friends gasped and elbowed her, and I probably said something about her words being unkind. But what she said hurt more than I let on.
I was 17 at the time, but I had spent many frustrating moments shedding tears over my bad skin. At the worst moments, my mom would say, "I'm so sorry, Honey, your dad had bad acne in high school and I had it in college. It's in your genes."
I never went out of the house without wearing foundation and throwing powder in my purse for backup. Fluorescent lighting evoked a fear reaction. And I dreaded swimming or any activity that would uncover my flawed skin.
I envied my friends with their "normal" complexions. I longed to have the occasional teenage zit instead of the landmine. "At least you don't have super-fair skin," one friend encouraged me from behind her peaches-and-cream complexion.
No matter how clean I kept my face, how strict my diet was, how many treatments I tried, my skin did not improve. I went to doctors, dermatologists, nutritionists. I used vitamins, creams, antibiotics. I steamed, scrubbed, exfoliated. But nothing fixed my face.
Wanting to Hide
In those days I didn't feel beautiful. I thought, If I could only have clear skin, then I would be pretty. From the time I was 14, my skin was a constant source of self-consciousness. You would think it would have improved after leaving puberty, but no. It got really bad in college, calmed down in my early 20s and reared up again a few years later. Even now, in my 30s, my skin acts up on a regular basis.
Through the years, I learned to live with my "condition," but it crippled my confidence. I found it hard to look confidently into people's faces when I believed my own was so unsightly. Once, during a dorm room conversation, a friend asked, "Why do you keep putting your hand in front of your mouth?" I made up some excuse, but the truth was I was attempting to hide an ugly pimple.
I think most women suffer from insecurities about their bodies — weight, body shape, waist size — but to have your biggest imperfection be your face is especially demoralizing.
Psalm 34:5 says: "Those who look to Him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame."
For me, it felt opposite. My face was a source of shame. During college I became so discouraged that I cut my beauty routine to the bare essentials — foundation and a ponytail. I basically lost hope in my attractiveness. It wasn't a godly loss of pride; it was a stubborn belief that I was not pretty and nothing I could do would change that.
I don't know when my attitude changed, but it did. It may have occurred around the time I contracted Lyme disease my senior year of college. This deep physical struggle obscured all vanity issues. It was hard to care much about my face when every joint throbbed with pain.
During this time, the Lord taught me that what was truly important about me was Him. What I could or could not do (or how I could or could not look) mattered little. What mattered was that I was His child and He desired to have fellowship with me and use me in my weakness.
As this truth took hold, I stopped thinking about myself as much. Who cared if Lyme disease had stripped me of my singing voice? Who cared if I had to cut my long hair into a plain bob in order to take care of it? Who cared if my skin wasn't perfect?
I realized that regardless of my own opinion on my looks, God desired to use me to minister to others. And that required looking them in the face — without shame — and being that radiant reflection of the One who filled me with hope and life. After all, God was the one who had created me with my flawed-skin genes. As much angst as it had caused me, there was a purpose in it.
Many times during my youth, I heard the story of Amy Carmichael. How as a child she longed and prayed for blue eyes because she considered her brown eyes to be plain and ugly. But when she was an adult, Amy was able to enter Hindu temples undetected and rescue little girls precisely because of her brown eyes.
I don't know why acne had to be a lifelong struggle for me. Perhaps to make me sensitive to others with noticeable physical problems. Maybe to remove unhealthy pride I could have taken in my physical appearance. Or maybe just for no reason other than imperfect skin was part of His plan for me — or the sad effect of a fallen world. I do know that I am fearfully and wonderfully made — even in my imperfection.
By my mid-20s I overcame my skin woes. Certain things do help — cultivating a strong digestive system, avoiding foods you may be allergic to, drinking lots of water, using a premium skincare system, getting good sleep. But my skin is still far from perfect.
A week before my September wedding, I got a facial. "Wow," the facialist exclaimed, "I can see you're quite broken out."
"Really?" I said lightly. "I think it's pretty good today!"
We went on to have a great conversation about life, marriage and God.
For me, the biggest breakthrough came when I realized that God had made me beautiful in spite of my imperfect skin. As 2 Corinthians 3:18 says:
And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
Being transformed into His likeness does not depend on physical appearance. In fact, that radiant beauty may emerge even more in the presence of physical imperfection.
Think about this description of our Savior: "He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to Him, nothing in His appearance that we should desire Him" (Is. 53:2). The most phenomenal minister the world has known was not a good-looking guy.
My husband didn't have to use Clearasil a day in his life, so my hopes are high that my children won't have to experience my skin trials. But if they do, I will remind them that it is God who makes faces shine. And beauty really is only skin deep.
Copyright 2009 Suzanne Gosselin. All rights reserved.