Acne. It’s the most common skin condition in Canada and the United States by large margins. Yet, there is still a large stigma associated with acne, with much of this stigma being attributable to poor media representation. My personal experience with acne has made me particularly attentive to it anytime it is shown on-screen.
For adolescent audiences watching their favourite movies and shows, it is rare to see any skin texture, let alone acne in its natural state. Lili Reinhart, star of Netflix’s Riverdale, has even spoken to this issue. In an interview, she described Riverdale as “picture-perfect” and “polished,” and though she emphasized how much she loved the show, she stated that storytelling which allows viewers to see characters with acne and less makeup can be “more relatable”. I would argue that not only is it more relatable, but, in a cinematic/televisual landscape of acne avoidance and cover-ups, it is also really important.
When they first were released, movies such as Lady Bird (2017) and Eighth Grade (2018) made big splashes in critics’ circles and amongst audiences for their honest and unsanitized portrayals of acne on-screen. Both films were huge awards contenders in their respective release years, providing a lot of attention to the film’s stars, both of whom chose to speak publicly about their decisions to “bare all,” so to speak, in their leading roles.
For Lady Bird’s Saoirse Ronan, showing her acne was a conscious choice. Desiring to depict teenage life accurately, Ronan, along with makeup artist Jacqueline Knowlton, determined that not covering up Ronan’s acne was the best way to do so. In a film which depicts the rocky coming-of-age of a young woman as she makes the transition from high school to college life, choosing to show acne with such openness is very powerful. And the critical and audience response reflects this, with many commending her performance and her willingness to rebuke usual teen film glossiness in favour of relatable, authentic storytelling. When considering the intense scrutiny that women in the public eye are under when it comes to their physical appearance, this choice becomes that much more impressive and significant.
Eighth Grade’s Elsie Fisher displayed similar power in her Golden Globe-nominated performance and received similar praise. Fisher even spoke openly about the challenge that comes with being a young actor experiencing acne in an industry which demands ‘perfection’. “Roles for teens aren’t the best right now, especially ones with acne,” she reflected back in 2018, going on to add how exciting it was to find a role which desired authenticity and thus encouraged her to present naturally. Ultimately, this decision adds to the weight of the film. Fisher’s character, Kayla, is incredibly real, with every attempt made by the production team to make her look, sound, and act like a teenager. The result is an honest, poignant, hopeful story of adolescence and all the messiness that comes with it.
Other examples of acne in media include those shown in Canadian phenomenon, Degrassi: The Next Generation (2001-2015), and the recent hit, Euphoria (2019-). Though entirely different shows in terms of style, both teen dramas display an intense commitment to realistic portrayals of some of the darkest moments of teen life. Degrassi’s advertisement tagline, “It goes there,” could just as easily be applied to Euphoria, with both of their massive successes being attributable to their commitment to raw authenticity. Just as with Lady Bird and Eighth Grade, showing characters’ acne adds to this. They go on dates, play sports, get into fights, try drugs, make mistakes, all the usual teen drama stuff, but with the added factor of natural skin. With this one change, their characters become more normal, more honest, more human. It sends the powerful message that acne doesn’t have to limit you, that you are allowed to exist in the world just as you are and that there is nothing inherently wrong with that.
In all of these cases, the display of acne on screen required purposeful choices by individual artists, directors and producers. In a world in which acne stigma dominates, these choices are rare. But as all of these examples prove, showing your acne without shame can be simultaneously freeing, courageous, rebellious and empowering, and the audience reception to these portrayals of acne is indicative of just how willing we are as a consuming public to see more of ourselves on screen, acne and all. Audience response matters and we need to continue to demand this kind of ‘relatable’ storytelling. Though airbrushed cinematic aesthetics will always be relevant, it is comforting to know that we are slowly seeing stories which counter the narrative that ‘perfect skin’ is the only desirable way to exist in the world. As acne’s popularity on-screen continues to grow, hopefully it will encourage us to be kinder to ourselves and to our skin.
Where Do We Go from Here?
Adolescent acne seems to be slowly increasing in frequency on the big and small screen. While this is certainly an achievement, one that should be celebrated, adult acne has not seen the same focus. Where Hollywood fails, the incredible content creators helming the ever-growing popularity of the “Acne Positivity Movement” are succeeding.
In an era of filters and photoshop, for someone to show their acne on social media in all its bumpy, red, pussy glory is, honestly, an act of bravery. It shouldn’t have to be, but the intense shame associated with acne makes it one. The American Academy of Dermatology states that depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem are common companions to acne, and undoubtedly, media portrayal of acne (or lack thereof) has contributed to this stigma. The best way to combat stigma and shame is to avoid secrecy and “bring shame into the light”. By opening that door and bringing their shame into the light, these creators are at once reclaiming their personal power and allowing more to do the same. I’m twenty years old and have dealt with acne on-and-off for almost half of that time. I know, personally, how powerful it is to hear about others who are in the same boat.
I would highly recommend checking out the work of Peter Devito, a photographer, whose interests include capturing natural human beauty and reclaiming aesthetic qualities which have previously been stigmatized, including acne, body fat, scars, wrinkles, and pigmentation.
I want to end this post by saying this: we deserve better acne representation in the media and I am so grateful for the brave content creators, actors, directors and makeup artists who are leading the charge and showing natural skin on-screen (and beyond). To anyone struggling with acne, please know that you are not alone, and that you are worthy of love and acceptance despite any dominant media narratives which tell you otherwise.
Featured Image Photo Credit: A24
Hi! I’m Brynn, and I’m super excited to be writing on the blogs committee this year. I am a third-year Women’s and Gender Studies student with interests in film, feminism, theatre and social justice. Blog writing provides me with the perfect opportunity to combine all of these passions. I hope you will join me on my blog journey!