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#Acnepositivity is built on inclusivity, but what about diversity?

TextAfia Kufuor

Despite equally affecting people of colour, black and brown faces are rarely featured at the forefront of the movement

Acne has been the bane of my life since my early teens. What started as predominantly troublesome hormonal spots quickly developed into quite severe acne. Seeking help from my local GP over the past 10 years, I’ve consumed a plethora of antibiotics, smeared hundreds of different creams over my face, and endured a rollercoaster of emotions that come with the repeated disappointment of seeing little to no progress with my skin. 

My final year of university saw my skin reach its worse. It was unbearable to move my face, something as simple laughing would cause pain. I always thought that life after graduation was meant to be liberating. I was meant to finally be free to pursue my aspiration of becoming a television presenter and this seemed far from possible due to the state of my skin.

I rarely see people embrace acne on television or in the media, so that and my sudden new painful outbreak of acne fueled my decision to start #acnepositivity Instagram page, @dontpopthatspot (a phrase I often hear from one too many individuals sprouting unsolicited advice). Originally, the aim of the page was to help remove the stigma surrounding acne in the media, but since starting it, it has become so much more.

Becoming a part of the #acneposivity movement opened up a world that I didn’t know existed. Over 70k people use the #acnepositivity movement hashtag, sharing knowledge, sympathising over similarities, and reminding the community that their skin doesn’t define them. At a touch of a button, those dealing with acne can be embraced by the community – it’s therapeutic. However, while scrolling through Instagram the representation of black women is few and far between. While it’s more common to come across black African-American ‘skinfluencers’, UK-based black women are much harder to find.

Yet globally, 95 per cent of people experience acne at some point in their life between the ages of 11 and 30. “I like that people are (now) raising awareness about acne,” says aesthetician and founder of Skin Therapy & Co Emma Kamara-Sesay, who experienced acne in her teens and early 20s. “There are a lot of young people who are insecure about it. People would come up to me and say I’m ugly because I have acne. I remember thinking would I be better off dead because people hate me”.

Student and skincare blogger Alicia Lartey highlights the trauma she experienced when going through acne in 2017, a time when the #acneposivity movement was less prominent. “I felt so alone when I had acne,” she reveals. “I saw a lot of white girls go through it, get their treatment and they’d be on their way. I just felt like a lot of us black girls. Even though we have access to the same GP’s… my acne trauma lasted a lot longer. Personally I feel as though GP’s and dermatologists don’t take acne seriously. That, coupled with the fact that you’re a black woman where already they don’t believe your pain, makes you feel so alone.”

This reality is part of a much larger issue where black women are repeatedly undervalued due to systemic racial bias within the healthcare system. In the UK, black women are five times more likely to die during childbirth than their white counterparts; from childbirth to skincare, discrepancies in the healthcare system need to be investigated.

“I feel as though GP’s and dermatologists don’t take acne seriously. That, coupled with the fact that you’re a black woman where already they don’t believe your pain, makes you feel so alone” – Alicia Lartey, skincare blogger

For black women in a world where black skin is already controversial, the pressure to have rich, smooth, clear, melanin-popping skin, like that of Lupita Nyong’o is high. Despite the accepting nature of the #acnepositivity community, engaging with the community is still daunting, given the lack of representation of people of colour.

Lartey admits that there are not “a lot of black women talking about their acne, their breakouts or whatever skin condition they are going through, which stems from the fact that the beauty industry was not really geared towards us to start with”. She muses that a lot of black women are ashamed of their acne and that anything that deviates from the “melanin goddess” look is not widely promoted or accepted. 

Aesthetician Dija Ayodele agrees that black women are often left out of the skincare industry, which led her to found Westroom Aesthetics and the Black Skin Directory. “I saw how difficult it was for women of colour to access skincare services and practitioners that they felt confident in treating their needs,” she explains. “I know other demographics are really well served, but women of colour are not.” 

From a more practical point of view, people of colour need specific acne treatment instead of a ‘one shoe fits all’ approach. “Skin of colour tends to scar more due to a higher level of melanin content and having more sensitive inflammatory pathways,” explains Ayodele. But are GPs and dermatologists taking this into consideration?

For me, joining the #acnepositivity movement has made me increasingly aware of this disparity in acne skincare treatment and also in advertising. While there has been a shift in acceptance of acne over the last year with brands like The Inkey List and Rosen Skincare championing inclusivity in their adverts, there is still a long way to go. “There’s more demand from consumers for brands to use more authentic images in advertising, especially on social media advertising,” Ayodele says – but are we actually seeing things improve? 

“I saw how difficult it was for women of colour to access skincare services and practitioners that they felt confident in treating their needs. I know other demographics are really well served, but women of colour are not” – Dija Ayodele, aesthetician and founder, Westroom Aesthetics, Black Skin Directory

After starting the IG account @barefacety last month, actress and beauty blogger Ani Nelson says she was overwhelmed by the warm response to her joining the #acnepositivity community and that she wishes she had joined sooner. She applauds the fact that people are unapologetically “showcasing their skin at its worst for them, owning it and helping other people”. Even as a new comrade, she recognised a gap in the community when it came to the visibility of black women. “I didn’t see as many black people sharing their stories, so that’s where I wanted to see myself, because I know we exist out there,” she muses.  

As we come to the end of Acne Awareness Month, I want to encourage more black women and men who are currently experiencing or have experienced acne to join the movement. It can be draining entering a space where yet again black people are underrepresented, but I believe our voice will be heard if more people speak up.

Starting my page changed my life. I’ve become more confident in my skin and learned so much about skin health. I’ve also built relationships with the kindest of people who are open, honest, and brave individuals standing up for something they believe in, and actively making a change. Like Ani recently has, join us!

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