A few years ago, I found myself amongst the 30% of people* in the UK that suffer with acne. After coming off the contraceptive pill, my skin broke out in a way that it never had before – and these weren't just the usual period pimples. Deep cystic spots which never came to a head (despite my best attempts) left my face red, blotchy, scarred and sore – but the worst thing was, I couldn't bear to show my skin in public. And while I was once more than happy to go makeup-free, heavy foundation and concealer became my diehard staples. I remember even feeling ashamed if the postman saw my bare face.
Since then, there's been something of a movement on social media towards skin positivity. Like body positivity, it's all about embracing differences and shunning the idea of perfection that we're so often presented with. Blogger Em Ford, known as My Pale Skin, arguably kick-started the campaign – going viral with her 2015 YouTube film You Look Disgusting, which shared some of the hateful messages she was sent after posting pictures of her acneic skin on Instagram. Now, if you search #acne, you're presented with nearly three million images of men and women talking honestly about their skin journeys.
But would this have been enough to help me feel confident in my own skin back then? I'm unsure. A lifetime of retouched adverts and flawless selfies are undoubtedly etched on my brain – and when you think about it, most conversations on beauty come down to skin. Is it true that in order to be 'naturally pretty' – a term I detest – we must have 'good’ skin? Our culture has taught us we need a fresh, unblemished complexion to look young, attractive, healthy – the list goes on.
Undoubtedly, the concept of realness within the media and popular culture has come on in recent years. Now, we've started to see red period blood rather than an odd blue liquid in sanitary towel adverts, and a handful of shaving brands recently made the headlines for using models with leg hair rather than those with magically smooth skin. But sadly, there's still much to be desired when it comes to skincare and beauty ads – they continue to feature women with perfect, un-textured skin who surely wouldn't need to use the product in the first place.
The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to chat to other acne-sufferers to see what their take on the current climate is. Have we made progress? 26-year-old Gemma from Lancashire tells me she thinks more needs to be done. "It's definitely not talked about enough - high coverage concealers are being modelled by girls with flawless skin and it's just not representative of real life," she says. "There are loads of acne makeup tutorials focused around covering acne and that's fine, I get people want to cover it, but there should also be a freedom to have your 'naked' skin out there, too."
It's an interesting point, since alongside Instagram movements such as #skinpositivity and #freethepimple, there's also a growing trend towards high-coverage makeup tutorials on people with acne. And while some would argue that it's harming the cause to promote covering yourself up with layers of foundation, I later learned that it's just a different form of empowerment.
Makeup artist Karishma, known as @karishmua on Instagram - where she has nearly 60,000 followers – quickly garnered attention online when she began posting videos of herself covering up her acne with her glamorous makeup looks. She admits that the reactions are mixed. "Initially I got so many negative comments about letting my skin breathe and how I'm causing more damage to my skin… but I also get loads of positive responses about how I've inspired people to be more confident about their acne," she says. "Having acne made me extremely insecure. Walking around with no makeup on was impossible for me – but by wearing makeup, I'm 'caked-up' in everyone else's eyes. I don't always get it when people say, 'be natural, love yourself!'. Yes, we should embrace our imperfections, but we don't have to love the scarring and acne if we don't want to."
Gemma felt equally judged for trying to cover her acne. "From a self-esteem point of view, it was horrible," she says. "I gained weight, felt generally low quite often, and actually stopped wearing makeup altogether because I thought it looked horrible on my skin - and if I looked like I had made an effort and still looked terrible, people might judge me more."
For many of social media's 'acne activists', the key is to shift the outlook on the skin condition, showing as much 'real' skin as possible. And while there's nothing wrong with wearing makeup to boost confidence, the idea is that acne shouldn't be something to be ashamed of in the first place.
I also chatted to Kat Armanious, who started her Instagram account @my.beautiful.acne to do just that. "I was sick of feeling the need to pretend that my acne didn’t exist," she tells me. "I became bored of constantly lamenting my old skin, always looking back, like some women look back at weight gain. I was looking at old photos and thinking, 'oh my skin was so great then' - and never really enjoying the here and now."
Kat is one of many who are committed to showing off their untouched, acneic skin on Instagram – the group also includes Britain's Next Top Model star Louisa Northcote, who started the #freethepimple movement. And while every individual acne sufferer I've spoken to has had different experiences and opinions on how they personally choose to deal with their skin, all agree that we need to see more real skin textures within the media and popular culture.
"We'd all get a major confidence boost if we saw more real skin," concludes Karishma. "We all need to feel included – we're all beautiful without editing. This idea of perfection excludes so many of us. Our confidence shouldn't just vanish as we wipe our makeup off."
I think we can all agree with that.