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Soraya Jansen
courtesy of Soraya Jansen

How one model’s bid to cure her acne left her with depression

Soraya Jansen speaks out on her harrowing experiences with antibiotics and Accutane

When artist, model and Dazed Beauty community member Soraya Jansen made the decision to come off the pill at the age of 23, she couldn’t have predicted the debilitating consequences she would soon be suffering. Suddenly afflicted by severe acne, Soraya faced social anxiety, depression, isolation and loss of work, as her skin and the various ‘cures’ she sought out to treat it with took a toll on her self esteem and creativity.

Here Soraya speaks to Dazed Beauty about her experiences with acne and her harrowing journey with anti-biotics and Accutane.

As a teenager, how was your skin?
Soraya Jansen: I have acne-prone skin thanks to my genetics, so during my teens I always had pimples, but it was nowhere near as bad as the acne I got as an adult. When you’re a teen it sucks, but because everyone else has pimples at that age its not that bad. As an adult though it fucks with your head.

When did you first start taking medication for your acne?
Soraya Jansen: At the age of 16 I was put on a very strong pill and was told it’s the most favoured in clearing acne. Yes my skin cleared up, but now looking back I’m disgusted my doctor didn’t offer me any alternatives to contraception nor inform me on the long term side effects of the pill.

Why did you decide to stop taking it?
Soraya Jansen: I woke up one day at the age of 23 and it was a huge, ‘what the fuck’ moment coming to terms with the fact that I was so naively taking a synthetic pill for 7 years. It took me a long time to realise the whole health system, and therefore sexual education is run under the patriarchy. Women are only fertile 6 days out of a month, yet men are fertile every day, so why is this ‘burden’ completely on us? The development of the pill was pretty much the most patronising women’s ‘liberation’ ever - yes, we’re no longer enslaved by our wombs so we can have an education, but we’re put on a pill with side effects so strong, they’re further boxing us into our gender stereotype of ‘hysterical, moody, irrational’ women. How is it liberation when we are obliviously altering our chemistry to satisfy the needs and desires of men? A vasectomy is a reversible 20-minute procedure with no side effects on mental health, so why are young girls put on a synthetic pill that is now scientifically linked to blood clots, heart attack, higher risk of ovarian cancer, depression? Or when research on the ‘male pill’ was stopped because too many men complained, even though these are the symptoms every woman on the pill has to deal with- mood swings, depression, weight gain - yet when we complain about it we’re just ‘women being women’- our issues are constantly underlooked. 

When you stopped taking the pill, how did your skin react?
Soraya Jansen: 
80% of adult acne occurs in women and I believe it’s directly linked to ‘post-pill acne.’ There are now more women, just like me, who only realise in their 20’s how fucked up the pill is and go off it, and along with regaining our natural connection to our bodies, we also develop acne. The pill messes with your endocrine system, so when you stop it, all of a sudden an androgen rebound occurs and your skin freaks out. 

How has acne affected your career?
Soraya Jansen: Getting acne while working as a model was honestly a lot. I knew that fashion was always bitchy- get acne as a model, you find out people are down right mean. The looks casting directors and other models gave me when I first got it and still went to castings was so degrading. I was also still getting directly booked for editorials which was even more humiliating, e.g. I arrived at a shoot and the photographer was smiling at me until he saw my skin, and from then on the whole day he was so rude to me and rushed the shoot.  I did this for about 3 months to the point of exhaustion trying everything to improve my skin, but the stress and pressure was making it worse, so I left my agency and quit modelling. Kendall Jenner can get acne and it doesn’t stop her but if you’re just a normal model, you need to go in hiding, your career is basically over- no one is going to book you anymore. Working for 3 months as a waitress though made me realise that any job in customer service gives you mad anxiety when you’ve got acne as your face is the first thing people look at. It kinda went so deep that I stopped everything creative I was doing because I was so ashamed to be in public. I think the combination of how the fashion world treated me and general acne social anxiety took a massive toll on my confidence and self-worth. I had friends with flawless skin ask me what my skin has to do with me as a creative, and its like well, if I cant even look at myself in the mirror without hating myself, nor leave the house and (literally) face the world, why the fuck would i want to be putting myself out there? I wish I was being overdramatic, but it’s actually how most people with acne feel, we’re just too embarrassed to talk about it. 

How did it affect your mental health?
Soraya Jansen: I’m pretty certain there is no one with acne who isn’t a loner and doesn’t have depression or some sort of social anxiety. It’s such a misunderstood skin condition, that the publics ignorance on how acne is caused is why this skin condition actually has more detrimental psychological effects over physical. It’s not the acne itself, its how people respond to it. I was the happiest in 2018 when I lived in the woods for a month, and that says a lot. 

What methods did you try to help the acne? 
Soraya Jansen: Acne sufferers should have a degree in cosmetology for all the hours spent researching remedies to cure this skin condition. I’ve literally tried everything - creams, diets, masks etc. That’s why it’s actually really hurtful when people don’t see acne similarly to eczema or psoriasis, but as poor diet/hygiene and make ‘advice’ comments.  You wouldn’t go up to someone who’s got full on eczema and be like yeah once I got a little rash, I used an avocado mask to get rid of it, they’d be like… babe that’s just insensitive, downplaying a real skin condition. 

How did people react to your acne? 
Soraya Jansen: Internal problems you can privately deal with and overcome, but when it's is on your face, you can’t hide it and everyone has a comment on it. The typical insensitive daily questions: “do you even wash your face babe?” “maybe be more healthy, like no junk food?”  or when people would say “you’re overreacting” “I don’t even notice it” (while the next day they complain about getting one single spot) and that hurt even more when friends were underplaying it, its like damn, im telling you that i am destroyed by this, please don’t undermine my “struggle” just because you are genetically blessed with flawless skin and can’t empathise. That’s what makes us so ashamed about our depression and social anxiety from acne, because people underplay the psychological effects and misjudge it as vanity. It’s not a question of vanity, it’s about wanting to look normal again so strangers stop looking disgusted when they see your face.

How was your experience with antibiotics?
Soraya Jansen: In May 2018 I thought my acne was under control from a combination of natural remedies, but then my skin broke out from the harsh water when I moved to Berlin (again showing it’s genetic- it won’t happen to you if you don’t have acne prone skin), so I rushed to the dermatologist to finally go on Accutane (actually called Isotretinion), but legally they can’t prescribe it before a course of antibiotics. Doxycycline broke me out so bad with massive cystic bumps all over my forehead, which spread to my cheeks. I never left the house last summer, because the instances I did I literally got made fun of by strangers in public, e.g. a man pointed at my forehead with disgust saying “WHAT IS THAT?”  These interactions turned me into more of the misanthrope I already was, and made me a loner by choice, like bye I’d much rather chill at home thanks

Was your experience with Accutane positive or negative?
Soraya Jansen: Other than the typical side effects of dry lips, itchy skin, sore muscles etc, it made me really depressed, increased my social anxiety, paranoia, I lost a lot of weight nda looked really unwell. it’s different for everyone, others have no mental health side effects, but after the course, they might get kidney failure. Accutane is NO JOKE. It’s toxic, super strong and can fuck with your head. I’d go 5/6 days never leaving the house not speaking to anyone. It made me extremely disconnected from the world, I’d get panic attacks from just a message on social media, so I eventually removed myself from all online interactions, social situations etc. It sounds horrible, but to me 6 months of having bed bound depression and other side effects was better than 2 years of having acne, not being able to work, never leaving the house, losing my social life, motivation etc. 

Would you recommend other people take Accutane? 
Soraya Jansen: If you've got acne the sad truth is that no cream, facewash, diet etc is gonna fully get rid of it and companies know how stubborn of a skin condition this is, so they monetise on our insecurities. Please just go on Accutane, take supplements whilst on the course (vitamin C, B complex, D3, Zinc, Magnesium etc), be super healthy, and use this downtime as "me time,” but make sure you surround yourself with people who check in on you, and remind you that you are on a drug (however if it gets too much then please obviously stop). I know how desperate and lonely you feel if you’ve got acne, you tried everything, wasted all of your money on ‘miracle cures,’ and feel hopeless. 6 months might seem like a long time but now the only thing I regret was not doing this sooner.

Why do you think there is such a stigma around acne?
Soraya Jansen: The lack of representation of people with acne in the media is what makes it a stigma. Acne sufferers are told by others that our problems aren’t real, so we stop talking about it, but that’s dangerous when the topic of mental health is being pushed away. When we’re being told our anxiety & depression is ‘being overdramatic,’ it further isolates us. We are now thankfully speaking more openly about mental health issues, but when caused by acne people don’t take it seriously. This is what is so damaging about the misinformation regarding acne, a bunch of people are really depressed and hiding it because they’re too ashamed. Ultimately as a society we have to move away from the idea that our self worth is connected to our physical appearance, and glorify people not for their looks but for their skills and accomplishments.

What do you think of people Louisa Northcote and other activists who are campaigning to #freethepimple?
Soraya Jansen: It is very needed when we’re trying to de-stigmatize acne in a world so obsessed with beauty. I wish I was as brave as Louisa to post pictures of my acne when it was at it’s worst, but I was so embarrassed. This is not how a skin condition should be mentally affecting people, but we sadly live in a very superficial society where if you have a visible skin condition on your face you are ostracised. If more people with a following normalised it, then the public would be better educated and be less insensitive towards the topic.

Should we be framing acne as something that is beautiful?
Soraya Jansen: Acne isn’t beautiful, it’s really painful and bloody irritating, but it’s also completely normal, super common and something that shouldn’t be framed as ugly. When you’ve got acne you’re often told by friends trying to show support, “don’t worry you still look beautiful!”, and of course you do, and if someone thinks you don’t look beautiful with acne then they’re the asshole who obviously can’t see past your skin, and therefore not worth your time. 

What do you think is the future of acne?
Soraya Jansen: The future of acne is being able to walk out of your house and not have people think you’re an ugly unhygienic junkie with a poor diet, but you simply have a genetic skin disease on your face that flares up with stress, environmental factors, reaction to medication etc, and instead of making an insensitive comment people say nothing, or maybe “shit, that must suck.” At the end of the day, we’re just trying to get on with our lives but it’s kinda hard when we’re reminded daily we don’t look normal