Skin deep

Acne can destroy the confidence of even top sports stars - so what hope do the rest of us have?

28th March 2018

“So how would you describe your skin?”

“Shit.”

“No it’s not! I meant – is it oily or dry?”

“Oily. That’s why I’ve got all this.”

I gestured to the painful cysts perched stubbornly all along my jawline. The encrusted Vesuvian pustules were almost certain to erupt from the downward pressure of the concealer brush which Kibar, a young manager in the Bare Minerals section of Debenhams, was ready to apply.

It was the first time I had let a stranger in public look at my bare face up close. Kibar had approached me as I stumbled into the make-up section, where I was praying to browse in peace, acutely convinced that the beauticians swanning around the aisles, blessed with porcelain, albeit powdered, skin, would be revolted if they got talking to me. I frantically recoiled into my scarf as Kibar had swooped.

The beautician muttered something bemoaning her own oily skin as she concentrated on administering my personal concoction: a moisturiser, a serum, a primer, a foundation base, more concealer, finishing powder, bronzer and blusher and lippy. All of which was carefully coated across my nodule-inflamed lower façade.  

“Do you seriously put all this stuff on your face every morning before work?” I asked in astonishment.

“Yeah. I should really wear eye cream but I don’t!” Kibar airily bemoaned.

Skin
It might look superficial, but bad skin is enough to make people retire from sport altogether

We got talking. I told her how I liked sport, but knew nothing about expensive make-up brands, which I had always been convinced my skin didn’t deserve. Kibar admitted she was clueless about all sport, before anxiously shouting across to her colleagues to see if they had ever heard of a woman called Jessica Ennis-Hill.

BBC Sports Personality of the Year, which ironically is affectionately known as SPOTY, wasn’t going to be the common ground between us that I thought it might be.

But perhaps we’d have something to talk about if a lot more athletes opened up about problems with their skin.

In an industry where sports stars earn far more from their sponsorship contracts than they do from competing, it should be immediately apparent who suffers with acne, given the giant, close-up, heavily branded faces we’re accustomed to seeing on TV, online and on posters.

More than half (54%) of women older than age 25 have some form of facial acne, according to the Journal of American Academy of Dermatology, which suggests the world of sport is not resistant to this skin epidemic. So why is it kept so secret?

Considering the obvious aesthetic issues, and the unfounded myth that sweating caused by physical activity worsens acne, it’s not hard to see why so few women — be they athletes or top personal trainers — have spoken out about the issue. Instead, it becomes safely categorised as just another taboo, both in sport and society in general.

Very rarely do we ever see bad, blemished or reddened skin, laden with imperfections, across our screens. Less so in a Debenhams make-up section. But that’s why the #skinpositivity movement across Instagram, spearheaded by YouTube blogger and model Em Ford, and further popularised by Celebrity Big Brother winner Toff, has provided some solace this year to the thousands of women and men who have acne and other skin conditions.

Anna Kessel brilliantly devotes a whole chapter on taboos for women in sport in her excellent Eat, Sweat, Play – where she explores the challenges women of all ages, both athletes and non-athletes, have to face with periods, pregnancy and the menopause during competition or physical activity.

Have skin conditions, then, crept onto this list? Kath Woodward, emeritus professor of sociology at the Open University, offers an explanation as to why they might have.  

Acne is a medical condition but it’s not an impairment in the way that other skin conditions might be and impede an athlete’s performance, says Woodward, who has spent years pouring over feminist and gender theories in the field of sport.

I’ve realised it’s what my body can do, rather than what it looks like

Though medical, it’s seen as temporary because “it’s linked to some notion of adolescence, or that it’s something you’ll grow out of”, she adds.

“It might be that the notion of adolescence creates a greater insecurity, but the big thing about sport is that it can make you confident at whatever level. You can feel good in your body.”

My skin is permanently painfully inflamed

Women who regularly do sport with bad skin and are unbothered by it have always amazed me.

As a former club swimmer with acne, Kate Adkins’s sport meant she could not hide behind the cosmetic comforts which make-up offered. She would often receive unsolicited advice on what she should and shouldn’t be eating from other swimmers’ parents – one even commenting on how brave she was to swim with her skin as bad as it was.

“In my head, I heard: ‘If I had your skin, I’d be too self-conscious to wear a swimming costume in public’,” says Adkins, now a researcher at Sheffield University looking at the psychological impact of acne.

“But my experiences of being a swimming club member and now a member of a running club has been positive and made me more confident in my own skin. I’ve realised it’s what my body can do, rather than what it looks like.”

Body image and athletic identity in sport, of course, isn’t exclusive to women, in the same way acne isn’t the only shitty skin condition on the planet. Colm, a former Gaelic footballer, was hit with psoriasis in his early twenties and has spent much of his adult life battling the condition, which ultimately played a part in his retirement from the game.

When I meet Colm on Skype, he happily shoves his plague-like marks in front of the webcam – blotches of red skin which would uncontrollably appear over his body and worsen in the winter months with the rain to resemble burn marks.

In his playing days, it would prompt him to make a quick exit from the changing room after a match, where he could shower in the safe confines of his home, although he never felt intimidated by the banter.

I kind of mentioned to a few of the lads that it was psoriasis. If you mention something like that in a male dressing room, the topic just gets changed

“There’s nothing precious in a male dressing room. Lads would get crucified for putting gel in their hair – it was that type. Everyone would get done for something,” he says.  

“I kind of mentioned to a few of the lads that it was psoriasis. If you mention something like that in a male dressing room, the topic just gets changed.”

But when the condition became unmanageable around his knees – even with the extra protection from shin-pads, high socks, cycling shorts and under-layers, (“I knew I looked ridiculous in front of the lads…”) Colm decided to draw the curtain on his career.

Drastic

Sarah can also identify with the awkwardness of exposing her skin in a changing room. Her journey towards “perfect” skin saw her juggle acne with her love for cross-country running, pushing her body to new extremes she never thought imaginable. In her second year at university, conscious that she was living in a house of spot-free, sexy cheerleaders, she started a January “detox” in a desperate measure to try and cure her acne.

“This quickly turned into a quest to be at my thinnest,” admits Sarah, who is certain acne played a role in the development of her eating disorder. She became desperate to draw people’s attention to the amount of weight she had lost, rather than her complexion, which offered a small consolation for the compliments she sought after her skin.

I obsessed over my skin

“When I wasn’t thinking about how much fat there was in a teaspoon of peanut butter, I still obsessed over my skin, which fuelled the problem,” Sarah says.

Skin
Acne isn’t a lifestyle choice, it’s a medical condition

“The funny thing is when I look back at it all, starving myself actually made my skin a lot worse, which made me more depressed and fuelled my ‘habit’ even more.”

Like Adkins and Colm, Sarah’s skin never stopped her from doing sport – in fact, she believed exercise and sweating would help “purify” her body and therefore help her overcome the condition.

But it spiralled out of control. Her punishing dietary and exercise regime had a detrimental impact.

At her worst, Sarah tells me she would jump on the scales up to eight times a day and felt “just nothing” when she had finally succeeded in shedding one and a half stone. It wasn’t until her friends intervened when she finally realised what she was doing to herself.

Sarah’s narrative drastically shows the lengths some people with skin conditions are prepared to go in an attempt to heal themselves. While she has since curbed her eating disorder – having sought professional dermatological treatment which has cured her skin, she admits to feeling isolated and unable to talk about it openly – Sarah never leaves home without concealer in her bag.

Change

If acne is to be seen more at the bottom, change has to come from the top.

Model Kendall Jenner is one of the few celebrities who has openly shrugged off her acne, on the Golden Globes red carpet in January, while singer Lorde has also Tweeted photo-shopped images of her flawed skin. In the world of sport, heavyweight boxer Hughie Fury – the cousin of former unified world champion Tyson Fury – went public about his gruelling battle with acne conglobata last year.

Fury revealed he had spent years battling the condition, a severe form of acne, which poisoned his immune system and fatigued him to such an extent that he was “only fighting at about 40 per cent”.

But from a female perspective, the nearest skin-related thing you’ll find is Nicola Adams smothering E45 cream over herself in an advert, saying she needs to “look good to feel good.”   

Make-up reinforces the tragedy of what strategies women have to adopt in order to compete without censure as female athletes

Professor Woodward says female athletes who want to embellish their natural appearance in front of the cameras aren’t narcissistic. At the end of the day, don’t we all want to look and feel good? 

“Make-up reinforces the tragedy of what strategies women have to adopt in order to compete without censure as female athletes,” she says.

“A lot of female athletes do wear make-up and have particular brands of make-up which are celebrated to withstand the heat and the stress of 100m, or a marathon. It’s also in the clothes women wear – they will always get comments.”

Women’s bodies are always subjected to external comments and critique, especially if they don’t conform to a particular stereotype of femininity. It’s this concept that Adams promotes through her E45 advert, identifying herself with women who have smooth, soft, sexy skin – but would she ever be used as a success story if she had acne across her face, back and chest? Professor Woodward is doubtful.

“Nicola Adams manages to be a charming and really engaging young woman, whose purpose is to knock hell out of another charming and engaging young woman,” she says.  

“She comes across because she smiles – she’s charming to interviewers and the public. She looks attractive but if she had acne, I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t be so charming.”

Visible skin conditions can be soul-destroying in ways few would believe, but they also provide the opportunity to challenge how we view and, ultimately, judge people on their natural appearance. The impact of the #skinpositivity and #acnepositivity movements are proof of that, but equally lend itself to the idea of just being another social media spike which won’t materialise into anything but another ephemeral, filter-free fad.

While these movements haven’t gone viral, there are currently just over 1,000 Instagram posts using it, it remains to be seen whether a pair of hashtags can garner enough power to help heal the much-damaged, idealised perception of flawless skin shining through our screens. But it is a step in the right direction, at least.

28th March 2018