What My Acne Taught Me About Loving Myself

Words by Qwisun Mia

Images courtesy of the author.

After 10 long months, I finally took my last dose of Accutane in October 2022. 

Yes, I’ve heard: “Accutane is horrible for your body.” Its chapter book of possible side effects (severe dryness and irritation, increased risk of depression and anxiety, vision loss, and IBS, to name a few) steers many people away from taking this medication. So why did I risk all of these side effects in pursuit of clearing my acne?

My breakout happened overnight. I went to bed with clear skin one evening in February 2021, and woke up the next day to tiny bumps covering my entire face. I was completely distressed; I cried for hours almost every day. I tried so many different things to “fix” my skin. I tried using nothing; I tried using “soothing” products; I tried using “miracle” products; I went to a naturopath; I got laser treatments. Nothing worked, and I was only becoming more depressed and anxious. These feelings started to trickle into every aspect of my life: I wasn’t eating, I wasn’t sleeping, I stopped seeing friends, I stopped playing soccer. I dreaded going to the grocery store or even walking down the block out of fear someone would see me, and I would have to explain why I looked the way I did. I felt such deep shame that I had “let” my skin get this “bad.” I thought I would never recover or love myself in the same way again. It’s honestly shocking, and a little bit scary, how something like acne can affect your mental health so deeply. I was ashamed of how I looked, but even more ashamed that I cared so much about something so “superficial” and couldn’t convince myself otherwise. 

Finally, in December 2021, I was referred to a dermatologist: Dr. Mona Khurana at Shine MD in Vancouver. During our in-depth consultation, she gently told me that Accutane was essentially my last resort, and that it was time to bite the bullet if I wanted to really get ahead of what was happening to my skin. This devastated me. I had never considered myself to be someone with “bad skin,” and the fact that I had to go on Accutane pretty much confirmed that I, in fact, was. But why was having acne—or maybe more so being seen as someone with acne—something that I was so vehemently opposed to?

I think part of the problem was that I was afraid that people would only see me as someone with acne, when that’s not all that I am. Still, despite knowing deep down that I’m more than just my skin, it was almost impossible to convince myself of that. A lot of these insecurities—if not all of them—about my skin stem from what I (don’t) see on social media. When I scroll through Instagram and TikTok, the only time I see acne is when it’s the main focus of the post (think acne positivity, skinfluencers, or skincare lines). I rarely see acne just existing without it being pointed out in some way, whether it’s about embracing it or mitigating it—and when I do, there are always tons of comments about the individual’s skin rather than the content itself.

During the worst of my acne, people were constantly recommending remedies and telling me how brave I was—and while I appreciated the intention, I was literally just trying to exist. When we speak about acne as something to “get rid of,” or say that someone is courageous for not covering up their acne, it implies that it is something to be ashamed of when it’s not.

These narratives are ones that I carried with me throughout my entire acne journey, while simultaneously trying to resist them. I had, and still have, so much shame around what my skin looks like; not because acne is something to be ashamed of, but more so because society has taught me that it should be—that this quality, among a plethora or others, is undesirable. In an attempt to resist this chokehold that societal beauty standards had on me, I decided to talk about my Accutane journey on Instagram. I started posting unedited photos, despite how uncomfortable it made me. I went back to playing soccer and spending time with friends. Eventually my skin began to clear, thanks to Accutane, and I got back to my “regular” life.

Qwisun Mia

But seriously: why did I risk all of the side effects of Accutane in order to clear my acne? I’m going to be completely honest here—Accutane was the only solution that pretty much guaranteed I would be back to conforming to societal beauty standards again. And that is ultimately what I wanted, and felt I needed to feel happy and like myself again. I truly hate admitting it, but that was the thought behind the process. I’m not saying it’s right, or easy, or that it’s for everyone; I’m saying I made the best choice for myself under the circumstances. It’s pretty hard to love yourself in a society that constantly tells you not to, and I made a call that helped me get back to that point.

Almost two years of having cystic, painful acne taught me that I did, however, have to learn to love myself in ways that weren’t just about my looks. I connected more deeply with myself, nurtured my relationships, and immersed myself in activities that brought me joy. Eventually, my acne stopped being the only thing I could think about. These little acts of resistance had a huge impact on the way I view myself.

Throughout this (ongoing) journey, I reflected and worked on addressing a lot of feelings I had internalized during my lifetime. It wasn’t just acne holding me back—it was also the fear of failure, feelings of inadequacy, and struggles with perfectionism, all of which are influenced by and reinforce settler colonialism. Imperfections and making mistakes, as long as we grow from them, are human qualities. My breakout was the reminder that I needed. Yes, I feel more myself again now that my skin has settled down, and yes, it has a lot to do with feeling like I “fit in” again. But I also know that I have a more gentle, patient relationship with myself now. I know that, if I were to have another breakout, I would be able to love myself through it. I wish society taught us that.

Going through this experience has given me so much perspective. It’s made me more appreciative, and it’s taught me to honor myself through all of the difficult moments that nobody wants to talk about. I’m lucky to have such a supportive network of family, friends, and even strangers who treated me with so much kindness when I couldn’t be kind to myself. If you’re struggling with acne, you are absolutely not alone.