This is the second instalment in my new blog series, How Do I Look? I have written so much about rosacea in the past 6 years and I wanted to open the conversation about skin positivity and visible differences to cover lots of different topics. Every week I am going to be talking to inspirational and interesting people to share their stories and experiences to help and support others.
In today’s post I interview the amazing Sofia Grahn, a skin positivity and acne advocate from Sweden. She only started sharing her story publicly a year ago, but has already become a wonderfully uplifting and important voice within the acne community. I absolutely love this interview and hope you do too.
Tell me a little bit about your skin…
“I got my first pimple at about 10 or 11. I was one of the first amongst my peers to get a breakout so I clearly remember people in my class asking what it was. I personally knew what it was since my brother had some experiences with acne during his teenage years. I went on to have acne during my teenage years, which was clearly linked to puberty, but my breakouts at that time did not bother me that much, probably since acne is often seen as a normal thing to deal with during puberty. It wasn’t until I got into my early 20s that I started to get persistent acne that was mostly concentrated on my cheeks. But in the early months of 2018 I started to feel like my acne affected my mental health to the point where I had to seek professional medical help. Before heading to my GP I had basically tried every option: changing my diet, a variation of different skincare routines (which meant spending loads of money on skincare products) etc. After seeing my GP I was prescribed a topical as well as a three month course of antibiotics. The antibiotics did clear up my acne momentarily and I spent the summer of 2018 only dealing with acne scars. But after the summer, my acne came back full force. I started getting acne in places I hadn’t before, like my forehead and down my neck. As my acne was now classified as severe, I was referred to a dermatologist where I was offered the drug Isotretinoin (also generally called Roaccutane/Accutane depending on where you’re from).”
“I had a six month course where I took daily tablets. I knew it was my best shot of treating my acne and to ultimately start to feel better again mentally. As I felt very much alone in my struggles with my skin I started to feel desperate to vent to anyone who knew what I was going through. I didn’t have anyone in my close circle who had gone through the same treatment, so I felt compelled to look at social media. I searched for the hashtag #accutane and I discovered this huge community on instagram where people openly shared their struggles and experiences with acne. I was truly in awe because I saw people who looked like me, and people who shared their raw stories and – even more mind blowing from my perspective – shared pictures of themselves without makeup showing off their skin as it was.
So I decided to start my own page on Instagram, initially to just track and document my skin’s progress during the medication but also to be able to connect with anyone out there who could understand what I was going through, whether that being on the same medication as me or just dealing with acne in general. Starting my account was scary initially: I didn’t want anyone who knew me from real life to find it so I started it under a new separate e-mail address. Posting my first picture of myself without any makeup, without editing, where the aim was to actually capture the reality of my skin was an odd feeling. I was terrified of the response that I would receive even though anyone barely followed me at that time. But I found the most wonderful support from people that I didn’t even know. I felt understood and I felt heard for the first time. I really had no intention from the beginning to grow a big following, all I wanted to do was to connect with people and to share my experiences. I wanted to offer and to receive support in a world where you (as an individual with acne) often times can feel alienated. Starting my instagram page led to so much more than I expected: I found my voice and I healed beyond the state of my skin in the process. I have the acne community and the lovely people on instagram to thank for that.
The below was the first instagram picture that I ever posted on my page without any makeup, filter and/or editing.”
What are the common misconceptions, comments, or questions about acne? What do you wish people knew about acne?
“I feel like the most common misconceptions are the age acne can affect the individual and also the underlying causes for getting the skin condition. Acne is often closely associated with hitting puberty and there is a misconception that it is supposed to heal on its own as we enter adult life, but really acne can affect anyone in any point of their life. Of course getting breakouts is more common during the teenage years because of the shift of hormones, but acne is not something that only affects teenagers.
Acne is often falsely linked to myths like uncleanliness and unhealthy living. While it is important to manage your hygiene and live an overall healthy lifestyle, these factors are often placed upon the individual in the form of unsolicited advice and misconceptions that affect how the individual is perceived. Often time a person with acne is very conscious of all of these lifestyle habits and have tried the majority of those because of this reoccurring myth.”
“There is also not a lot of general knowledge in society as to how it can affect the person dealing with acne beyond the (physical) struggle with their skin. The psycho-social effects and mental well-being is hugely negatively affected by acne and is closely linked to anxiety and depression. A lot of people seem to have the perception that having acne is a minor cosmetic issue, but the negative consequences on the mental well-being of a person with acne can be immense and debilitating. So it really isn’t something that you can ‘just get over’, dealing with acne isn’t only skin deep.”
How do you feel about make up in relation to acne?
“I have a very relaxed relationship with makeup in relation with acne. I have always been a person who enjoys the creative aspect of makeup, but as my acne got worse my relationship with makeup got a bit more complicated. Instead of enjoying the process of applying makeup I started to feel pressured and a sense of obligation to focus on covering up my acne, which made the entire experience negative. Therefore when my acne got more severe the relationship I had with makeup became strained. On one hand I felt obligated to cover up from society to look presentable and on the other hand I felt like I needed it for myself to deny the condition that my skin was in to feel ‘normal’. But as I started to post pictures of my skin, unfiltered, without makeup online I grew a lot of acceptance and purposefully made a point to steer clear of makeup to work on my self esteem and how I viewed myself through my pictures on my instagram page. So when I grew acceptance towards my skin I could get a more relaxed relationship with makeup, to find the joy and creativity again without that underlying sense of obligation. And that’s how it’s supposed to be, whether you choose to wear makeup or not, nothing you do should ever feel like you’re doing it out of obligation to solely fit into certain social standards.”
"Whether you choose to wear makeup or not, nothing you do should ever feel like you're doing it out of obligation to solely fit into certain social standards." Click To Tweet
How does your skin make you feel on a day to day basis?
“On a daily basis it does take some effort to actively work on embracing my acne scarring, and the potential breakouts. It takes a lot of conscious mindset work to actively not let my skin affect my mood and how I view myself. Living in a society where clear skin is what is constantly reinforced as what you need to have in order to feel happy and/or have a good sense self esteem, it does take a lot of work to not let it affect my mood/and or self esteem. But I have come a long way in terms of not having the bad days overwhelm the good days.
There is definitely also a ‘before and after’ from when I created my instagram page as to how my skin makes me feel. Of course I still have good and bad days, but the better days are definitely more frequent now. On a day to day basis I embrace my skin: the scars and hyperpigmentation make me feel empowered. It might sound odd, but seeing my skin heal and seeing the power in that healing every day empowers me. I have come a long way in my self acceptance, to accept that the skin that I’m currently in is outside of the frame of what society deems as desirable. Trying to find my own kind of beauty has been a long journey, both inwards but also opening my eyes outwards to how society works as well.”
What are your thoughts on the media visibility of acne? How do you think social media has impacted the visibility of different skin conditions?
“I think the media is definitely missing the mark in terms of being inclusive when it comes to acne. Since acne is closely associated to this myth of uncleanliness, even skincare brands which actually have people who deal with acne as a target group still steer clear of using models with acne with the fear of people thinking that their products will break them out. In reality, I think a lot of consumers with acne would rather feel positively reinforced to have that representation and go out of their way to buy products from a company that is more inclusive by shedding a positive light on acne. When it comes to traditional media overall acne isn’t very visible at all. I feel like a lot of the times characters in TV shows, movies etc acne are constantly being showcased in a negative context. Acne or even a small pimple often works as a sort of cinematic cherry on top of a bad day or failure to feel beautiful and/or accomplished that day. Acne is always portrayed in a negative context and it would be refreshing to see a character with acne without it being explicitly charged with negative connotations.
I think social media so far has the biggest role on shedding a light on different skin conditions. The skin positivity movement is finally showing some real inclusive diversity that rightfully represents the different range of skin in society. The reality of this representation is all because the foundation of the movement is made out of real people, sharing their real stories with people all over the world. Social media can be wonderful in that way: when traditional media fails people can take action into their own hands and make some sort of change by coming together online, that’s truly powerful.”
How do you deal with bad days?
“I just let them be bad. I try to let myself feel negative, or sad, or whatever it is I am feeling. I think it is very important to not neglect your feelings because you think you have some sort of pressure to be positive every single day. We are multifaceted beings and, while it is important to work on mindset and try to not have the majority of your days be bad days, it is important to acknowledge what you’re feeling. When you acknowledge what you’re feeling, not pushing it away but rather welcoming it, you can actually start to discover WHY you’re feeling the way that you do. And that question ‘Why am I feeling this way?’ has been very important to me in terms of letting go of a bad day and get a better understanding as to why I am affected by certain things when it comes to my skin. Often times I have realised that it isn’t only my skin that adds fuel to a bad day, it’s other parts of my life and experiences. I have also come to realise that often times I get affected by social constructions of society that somehow play a huge role in how we view ourselves. And when I can pinpoint that what I feel stems from something bigger I give myself some sense of self compassion in that realisation. We are all truly trying our best in this society.”
If you have consulted the medical community for your acne, how were those experiences?
“When consulted the medical community I personally have never gotten anything other than an accommodating and understanding experiences from the doctors that I have had the pleasure to meet. Initially I was prepared to sort of having to argue why I needed their medical help. I actually was very scared and intimidated to seek professional medical help, since I never felt as if my pain and struggles associated to acne was validated. But the doctors and dermatologist that I have had the pleasure of meeting have always been very kind and understanding towards my struggles and always went out of their way to help in the best way possible, which helped quite a lot while still being in a pretty fragile state mentally.”
In the past few years there have been more conversations around the link between skin and mental health, what are your thoughts?
“I think that the link between skin and mental health is one that is undeniably evident. Though I feel like research into the link between mental health and skin needs to be explored more thoroughly. The presence and stories within the skin community online speak volumes as to how having skin that doesn’t fit into social standards can have debilitating consequences. I think that this aspect of mental health linked to skin is something that ought to be talked about more to spread awareness amongst society to better help individuals with skin struggles. I think a lot of people feel quite alone dealing with their mental issues that are a consequence of their skin, since it can be considered a minor cosmetic issue. So I feel like we have to keep the conversation going so that we all can shed a light on the issue to eventually help people feel better and less alone.”
Have any positives come out of your acne?
“For sure! I often think about the positive things that having acne has taught me about myself as well, as getting a better understanding of society in some ways. I have definitely become more compassionate and understanding after dealing with acne. I have gotten a better understanding that pretty much everyone goes through some rough paths in their lives and that kindness and understanding is everything. We never truly know what a person might deal with, whether that being something that shows on the outside or something that’s boiling underneath the surface. In a lot of ways having acne has made me a better person. While it was hard and in some ways rough on my mental health I wouldn’t ever wish that I hadn’t gone through it. It has taught me so much about myself – that I am strong, to value other aspects of my being besides what my exterior looks like, and to focus less on what people might think of me. Going through this whole ordeal really has been a huge journey of self discovery and I feel like I have found my sense of self in a way which I haven’t felt in my life ever. And finding the acne and skin positivity community online has just been rewarding beyond words. I have had the pleasure to cross paths with so many lovely individuals and they have taught me so much about the beauty and importance of diversity and representation. I don’t know where I would be without them all, I am beyond thankful for all of them for showing endless love and support through it all.”
What are your top tips for living with acne?
“First and foremost, I would say to navigate how you feel about your skin condition. Is it something that you want to do anything about or is it something that you can cope with? Because often times I feel like a lot of us have this idea that ‘clear skin’ is the end goal, but living a happy life WITH acne is very possible. If you want to treat your acne, explore what options would suit you best having your personal preferences in mind. I took the medical route but a lot of people choose to deal with their acne in a lot of different lifestyle changes. It all comes down to what you’re comfortable with and what your personal beliefs are.
I would also say that you are under no obligation to justify anything about your skin and the choices that you make on a daily basis. The current state of your skin does not measure your worth or your beauty. It is very important to separate your worth from your superficial looks, period. If wearing makeup makes you feel better, do it. If you find that you can work on going without makeup, awesome. Whatever that you find that you need to get through the day is whatever is ultimately best for you.
Know that a lot of the time you are your worst critic. You are probably hyper-aware of your skin, because you live in it. But a lot of people don’t think about your skin the way that you do. Just like you’re focusing on yourself, pretty much everyone is busy focusing on themselves as well and most people don’t put too much energy into evaluating the condition of your skin.
Keep doing the things that you love and spend time with people who you love and support you. Reach out to someone who might understand and vent when you feel like feelings get overwhelming. I know that it can be hard to get out there, to do and to actually enjoy things when you’re in a bad state of mind but it does help to focus on other aspects of your life.
Last but not least, question the idealised standards of beauty. Why are we taught that we’re supposed to look a certain way, and who is benefiting from this? What do I gain from constantly putting myself down? What can I gain from learning to accept myself here and now, regardless of what my skin might look like? And open your eyes to the people around you. There are an overwhelming amount of people out there in society that aren’t very visible because of the lack of media representation. But if you start to look around you there is so much diversity. I bet that you’ll start to notice that people actually have similar skin to yours, and that you’re not alone.”
Wow! Thank you so much to Sofia, for being so honest but also putting so much thought into these helpful answers. If you found this interview useful or inspiring then you will LOVE her instagram – she’s a great person to follow and never fails to perk up my timeline with her wisdom!
Read the other posts in my How Do I Look? series here:
- MICHELLE talking about her scars;
- NATALIE talking about vitiligo;
- SUSIE on her Telogen Effluvium (hair loss);
- AMY on her port wine stain birthmark;
- GEMMA on psoriasis;
- AMARA on eczema;
- GRACE on her scars;
- JUDY on her sensitive skin;
- SHANKAR on his Vitiligo;
- P. on their Acne Conglobata;
- and SOPHIE on her Trichotillomania.
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