I remember carrying foundation in my purse every day in high school. Did Cosmopolitan say it was better to put concealer on before or after the rest of my face makeup? This was important information, because I was obsessed with makeup, since it helped me hide the clusters of painful acne on both sides of my chin that I felt would fare better spackled in the iffy compounds that my liquid foundation was likely composed of.
Looking back, foundation was a beauty product that I had an unhealthy attachment to. I needed liquid cover-up to not only smooth over blemishes but to make me feel pretty. I would feel attractive for a small window of time after applying cosmetics. By the time I pulled out my compact mirror at lunch, my makeup started to fade, and so did my confidence -- which, at the time, was directly linked to how I perceived the people around me rated my outward appearance. Even I rated myself as ugly with acne.
That all changed when my friend lent me her Noxzema pads and my pimples went away forever. Just kidding. But I sure believed that as a teen, even though my problem couldn't be fixed with products.
I didn't know it until years later, but when I touched my hand to my chin and felt the raised spots -- which I often did in my acne years between the ages of 12 and 22 -- I was putting my finger on an area of my life that didn't need to be buried with beauty products but needed to be thoughtfully excavated with diet and lifestyle changes.
My years with skin trouble taught me a lot about what does and doesn't work for my body. For starters, what didn't work for me was treating my acne like an isolated issue that could be fixed externally with expensive creams in shiny, mass-marketed packages. What did work was realizing my rough skin acted as a red warning light to show me that something was really off inside my body and soul. I'm not an expert in women's health, dermatology or even cosmetics, but I am a woman who has learned from personal experience that acne is more than a skin-deep issue.
Healing from acne meant changing how I eat and live from the inside out so my skin could reflect a body well taken care of. Practicing self-care through diet and exercise is a transformation that started at 23 years old and continues today.
On most days during my acne years, my daily menu included bagels for breakfast, fast food or sandwiches for lunch and pasta for dinner. I also drank multiple cups of coffee per day with a significant amount of alcohol consumption in the evenings and weekends.
Now everything has shifted. I currently eat a wheat-free diet (hello, wheat allergy I knew never about!), abstain from alcohol and stick to decaf when I have the occasional coffee (since I'm personally sensitive to caffeine). There are other reasons outside of my skin condition that I made dietary changes, but the redness in my face has decreased largely because of the elimination of these inflammatory foods. While I did a significant amount of elimination, I consider my healing to be more about addition than subtraction.
If you would have told me I would be a non-drinking, decaf-consuming person, I would have worried that my life would be a downward spiral of deprived boredom. I then would have taken that fear-based, small-minded mentality I was operating from and given myself a hug to soothe my frantic worry. I would have cooked the younger me an incredible dinner of smoked salmon, shiitake mushrooms (which are anti-inflammatory!) and roasted red peppers. I would have given her blueberries and (decaf) homemade chai for dessert. I would have gently rubbed pure aloe vera oil over her tired face and suggest she take 10 minutes to write in a journal and pray before a full night's rest. I would tell her that her life would not be boring. It would be full of discovery of the natural blessings available on this earth for us to explore and enjoy.
I grew to delight in the joy of an activity like cooking a fresh, organic meal that leaves me feeling balanced and whole. And for whatever reason -- maybe it was ditching refined carbohydrates, maybe it was something else -- taking control of my own health decisions not only cleared up my skin but also helped to regulate my emotions and boost my energy. When I began to eat healthy, I found that food was the largest influence in my skin's restoration.
The road to getting here was long, since I was a latecomer to the knowledge that diet and skin health were interconnected. Growing up, taking care of myself was an inconsistent, misinformed effort. Instead of taking comfort in the fact I wasn't alone in my acne struggles, (according to the American Academy of Dermatology, more than 40 percent of adolescents have acne or acne scarring), I latched onto some of the idiotic coping mechanisms around me.
I remember my adolescent peers saying that going tanning helped their acne and concealed the uneven skin. When I heard this, I instantly believed I too needed to hit the tanning bed. Reflecting on that now makes me shake my head, laugh and sigh at its absolute absurdity. The fact that lying in a tanning bed was toxic for my health was a dismissed afterthought second to, "Crap, I can't really afford tanning," given that I worked as part-time waitress in a small town. It didn't dawn on me that I shouldn't give that much clout to my peers when it came to health advice. Again, I gave covering my symptoms priority above changing my habits, partly because I didn't believe it was possible for things to get better, nor did I face the truth that my habits were influencing my outcome. I now believe improvement and healing is always possible. Some things are out of our control, but so much isn't.
I wish I had known that worthwhile, results-producing information was available to me if I sought it out and took action. Even when I did seek professional help, I didn't see much progress largely because of my resistance to change. On one defining visit to a nurse practitioner, I learned that I had polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), a condition defined by an imbalance of hormones that, for me, also led to trouble losing weight in addition to contributing to my acne, which was a conclusion I drew in my own research about the syndrome. The nurse practitioner prescribed birth control to regulate my hormones. I tried this for a little while but didn't keep up with it out of lack of conviction and understanding about its purpose as well as lack of discipline and organization in how I cared for my condition. While I initially tried birth control as a treatment method for PCOS, I found that food was my personal best medicine for balancing my hormones. Integrative nutritionist Alisa Vitti was the first person I encountered discussing this online. I discovered her on Twitter, of all places.
It took awhile to get to this place of recognizing resources right under my nose. Long before I did, I once came into contact with a clue about how my lifestyle was influencing my skin. A co-worker of my mom's mentioned that a woman in her family with PCOS had luck cutting out carbs from her diet. This was heard off-handedly and faintly on my end, because I didn't quite accept it until later on.
Instead of putting the connection together that an ingredient in many of the foods I was consuming could be interfering with my skin and hormonal health, I received the comment as an accusation. You are this way because you eat bagels. You caused this disorder because you're fat. I let food shame swallow me up instead of using a small piece of information (even one I heard indirectly) as a chance to study, ask questions and learn more. Thankfully, I now take pleasure in carefully evaluating information to see whether I should take it or leave it in my self-care process.
Even when I was starting to believe that the quality of my skin had somewhat to do with a hormonal imbalance that could be helped with healthy eating, I still felt my acne was a condition of ugliness that I was somehow at fault for. I attributed it as another factor that ruined my appearance, which just had to be the reason for any type of life rejection including social and romantic disappointment. Turns out, the absence of painful pimples didn't save me from experiencing pain in relationships or rejection. Heartbreak is a condition of humanity, not acne.
I remember thinking that I must have the wrong color of makeup, and if I could just master the elusive skill of matching my foundation shade to my skin tone, I could look like the polished women I was bombarded with in the media on a daily basis. In my acne years, I spent hundreds of dollars at my local drugstores on beauty products. At one point, I worked for a large cosmetics chain where I spent close to 25 percent of my paycheck on the store's products. I wasn't the only one shelling out cash for makeup and skincare. Women reportedly spend over $426 billion a year on beauty products. Becoming aware of the beauty industry's influence on me caused me to ultimately see that while products can be helpful (and fun!), it is more fulfilling to mindfully and sustainably resolve an issue rather than put it out of sight, as I often did with my acne.
In all of this, there were much darker, more damaging issues than PCOS or acne at play. My skin has gotten much clearer, but even as I write this, there is a little redness in my face and a rare pimple sits on my chin. Yet lurking below the surface of my skin in my acne journey was anger, hate, shame and blame. My skin wasn't perfect, and that was one reason to hate myself. The beauty industry promotes harmful products, and that was one reason to be angry. I didn't learn to eat well until I was older, and that was one reason to feel shame. The one medical professional I interacted with didn't give me the feedback I needed, and that was one reason to place blame.
It became clear awhile ago that I wanted to wear natural beauty products and eat healthy food. Now it's clear that I don't want anger, hate, shame, and blame to be anywhere near my life, because they are like a poison. I choose peace, love, honor and self-responsibility instead. They are mine. They cleanse me like a forceful antidote. If I let something like acne allow these toxins to seep through, they might show up on my face or worse, erode my spirit, threatening to turn what is now calmer than ever into a physical and emotional chaos I refuse to accept.
This story is part of HuffPost Healing, a HuffPost series about physical, mental and emotional healing. Have you had a surprising experience with healing? If so, we'd love to hear it. For Gina, it was acne. For others, it's food allergies or addiction. What is it for you? Reach out by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.