What I Learned From My Adult Acne

When the topic of puberty comes up in discussion, most everyone has their fair share of embarrassing stories ranging from how their parents awkwardly gave them “the talk” to how they came to realize that their once-bare, odorless armpits morphed into a fuzzy, unknown place with a peculiar smell. And for girls, waking up to bloodstained underwear can be a panic-inducing and intense introduction to the many other hormonal changes patiently waiting to manifest. The female puberty narrative, a perfectly shaped and tidy package of burgeoning womanhood, holds that girls will certainly have their first periods between ages 13–14. Then they’ll, of course, start to gain weight in their hips and breasts. And last but not least, their faces will initially break out, but will clear up as they near the end of their teenage years. But what if the physical changes expected during puberty don’t happen within this timeframe?

It was a nightmare. And to this day, in my late 20s, I still haven’t woken up from it.

As a teenager, I had a few breakouts here and there around my period, but nothing that couldn’t be treated overnight. My skin was more or less a perfect canvas with a few freckles. For years I was complimented on my complexion and felt that even if my unruly, frizzy hair didn’t fit the beauty standards of my Southern high school, my skin certainly did. But all of that changed when I started graduate school years later. Perhaps it was a symptom of the impending stress of my program, but it seemed that as soon as the clock struck midnight on the eve of my 24th birthday, my skin decided to travel 10 years into the past and experience the acne it had avoided. I started breaking out around my chin and jaw line, and then on my cheeks and around my mouth. I had no idea what was happening. My healthy diet hadn’t changed, I was getting semi-regular exercise, and was sleeping anywhere from 7–8 hours each night. At that point, I knew it was certainly hormonal, but couldn’t figure out why my seemingly stable hormones suddenly reconfigured themselves to give me the worst acne I thought I could possibly experience. It was a nightmare. And to this day, in my late 20s, I still haven’t woken up from it. I battle new breakouts on a daily basis and am a regular at my dermatologist’s office. When I’m there, I notice the other patients suffering from acne, but unlike me they are still in high school.

As embarrassing and tormenting as adult-onset acne is, going through this has made me realize that the woes of puberty don’t always happen how and when they’re expected to. Trying to contain them within one widely accepted timeframe is impossible because everyone’s hormones are completely different. And for whatever reason, my cocktail of hormones is more reactive now than it was during my teenage years. I know that eventually my acne will clear up and I will look more like how someone is “supposed to” look in their late 20s. But what I’ve realized is that “growing up” doesn’t take place in the neat and tidy way I thought it would. In fact, sometimes the changes that start in puberty never really end.

This essay originally appeared in the Body issue. Find more inspiring stories from the Body issue here or read My Hairy Legs and Me: A Puberty Story.