With up to 95% of UK residents aged between 11 and 30 suffering with acne to some extent, it’s safe to presume that nearly everyone will experience the skin condition at some point in their lives. While boys are more likely to have acne during adolescence compared to girls, research suggests the issue is more likely to persist for women than men.
In women, a handful of different things can affect skin, from hormonal changes that occur during the menstrual cycle or with conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) to forms of contraception and other medications such as antidepressants. Even though acne is very common, beauty standards and societal expectations for women and girls mean that it is rarely represented in the mainstream or on social media. In fact, acne is often reviled. That’s why, for me and so many other young women I know, skin is a feminist issue.
Recently, I was shocked and heartbroken by this viral tweet which highlights the difference in attitudes towards young men and young women with acne on TikTok. The tweet – captioned “do you see the difference? are you fucking kidding me” – shows two TikTokers with acne, accompanied by screenshots of comments they have received. While the teenage boy’s comments section is bursting with praise such as “Literally acne is hot idc what any one says” and “Anyone else think acne is hot”, the teen girl’s comments section is filled with words of the opposite nature, many of them upsetting and offensive. “Someone said ‘cheese pizza’” reads one comment, while another post says, “Go take care of yourself”.
While cyberbullying and internet trolling in relation to skin conditions is sadly nothing new, it’s disheartening to discover that negative attitudes to acne have not changed among Generation Z. Gen Zers became young adults and teenagers in the decade that the body positivity movement took off. Growing up amid movements like Dove’s Real Body campaign and Billie’s Project Body Hair, Gen Z is often considered a progressive and inclusive generation. This makes it all the more disappointing to see that body positivity isn’t extended to skin. It is especially distressing that the negativity disproportionately affects young girls.
@lyds.maigetting a close up of them pores ##acne ##makeup ##bodypositivity ##skincare ##eyeliner♬ original sound – Cam
I headed to TikTok to investigate further and found that the hashtag #boyswithacne brought up hundreds of videos, primarily made by girls. Many highlight how ‘cute’ boys with acne are, with one video racking up an enormous 818k likes. A quick search of the tag #girlswithacne delivered plenty of much-needed self-love videos but very few mirrored the energy and praise shown to boys. This is something 20-year-old Lydia knows all too well. After she began posting videos of her journey taking acne medication Accutane, Lydia gained 12.4k TikTok followers almost overnight. It wasn’t long before nasty comments about her skin started flooding in.
“I’ve had ‘pizza face’ and I get called ‘Deadpool’,” Lydia told me. “I also had ‘Freddy Krueger’ once,” she continued. The majority of these scathing comments come from either young male TikTok users or ‘faceless’ accounts with unidentifiable profile pictures. While Lydia has found a loyal community of male and female followers who fight her corner in the comments section, she has found these remarks difficult to deal with at times. “There have been a few comments that have knocked me back,” Lydia said. “Someone called me ‘musty’ once,” she recalled, “and I don’t know why but that really took me back. I’m not musty and obviously I wash!”
@alisongrygo1Stop covering up what is allowing you to become your strong future self ❤️ ##acne ##acnepositivity ##constellations♬ I feel kinda freeeeee – Amber Rought
Among young people, there is a damaging and common misconception that acne is a result of unwashed skin but many other skin myths persist on TikTok. It just goes to show how ill-informed lots of these comments about acne really are. Student TikToker Alison reflects Lydia’s experience. Having begun telling her Accutane story on the app, she started to receive comments both positive and negative alongside her videos. “There were more positive comments than negative I’d say, but I did get ones like ‘pizza face’,” Alison said. “They didn’t bother me too much because I’m strong-willed,” she continued but added that boys can be brutal. Like Lydia, Alison reported most of these comments coming from either male or anonymous accounts.
Studies have consistently shown that boys tend to score higher in self-esteem tests than girls throughout adolescence. It’s fascinating to see teenage girls putting all of this emotional energy into normalising skin conditions for boys and not getting anything back. To get to the bottom of why this is happening, I contacted psychodermatologist Dr Alia Ahmed, who specialises in skin and mental health. She cares passionately about the experiences of young people with acne. “Acne can have almost devastating psychological consequences,” she told me. Interestingly, Dr Ahmed puts the popularity of the #boyswithacne hashtag down to girls trying to normalise acne for boys, something which is not reciprocated. “Women have always traditionally felt like a support network,” she said. “I think women and girls are trying to make men feel better about themselves here, but it’s usually at a personal cost because nobody is doing it for them.”
Despite seeing more and more boys come to her with skincare concerns in recent years, Dr Ahmed believes that lack of acne representation in mainstream beauty may be to blame for some of the saddening male attitudes towards acne among young women and girls. “I often wonder if [boys] are not able to tolerate females with acne because they’ve always been shown images of women without it, or without any visible differences,” said Dr Ahmed. It makes sense. The majority of beauty campaigns or Instagram influencer accounts show poreless, hairless and blemish-free skin. Even on TikTok, it’s easy to to apply filters and to hide true skin texture. Of course, there is nothing wrong with deciding to use a filter but are these near-perfect images skewing men’s reality? Dr Ahmed speculated: “Have men got a beauty standard in their mind of what they want in life? If a female doesn’t fit that, they then say something negative about it.”
It would be unfair to generalise and assume that boys with acne do not suffer the same fate as girls on TikTok. Nineteen-year-old high school senior Dylan posts videos about his acne to his 29.6k followers. While he does find himself on the receiving end of negative comments every now and again, he tells me that he mainly gets comments such as “I think your acne is hot” and “You’re beautiful, king”. Dylan agrees that boys with acne are treated differently from girls with acne on the app. He puts it down to unfair beauty standards. “Girls are told to cover their acne up with makeup and when they do, they get called a catfish – it’s insane,” he told me. “If the video is a girl with acne, I’ve noticed that it’s always guys leaving rude comments and it’s the opposite on guys’ videos; the comments are often very positive and lift them up.”
While the beauty industry’s lack of representation should bear some responsibility, attitudes are slowly changing. Recently, skincare brand Skin Proud has made an effort to feature models with acne in their online marketing. Their Be Proud, Not Perfect campaign champions “texture, pores, blemishes and all” and the brand is committed to featuring diverse and inclusive models, as well as unfiltered and unretouched images. The consumer goods corporation Unilever also recently announced plans to remove the word ‘normal’ – which could imply that skin conditions such as acne are abnormal – from the packaging of all beauty products under its umbrella. It has been hailed as a positive move and will hopefully help to normalise textured and acne-prone skin types.
Of course, TikTok is a game-changing social platform. TikTokers like Lydia, Alison and Dylan are proudly showing their faces in spite of the negativity and by doing so, helping to normalise skin texture for younger users on the app. “I think seeing people with acne is so important,” Lydia told me. “Just seeing more skin like mine and becoming exposed to it means that it doesn’t become this big thing.” Similarly, Alison believes that beauty standards are beginning to shift for young Gen Z women. “YouTube stars like Emma Chamberlain and Cassandra Bankson are showing that acne is not a barrier between your beauty or your happiness.”
There’s no denying that social media has made gender inequality in relation to skin glaringly obvious. Even with increased representation of acne-prone skin online, not to mention mainstream beauty giants slowly but surely making changes to the way they represent acne in campaigns and advertising, I wonder whether it will be enough to shift attitudes towards Gen Z girls with acne on TikTok. Should it be young women’s responsibility to weather the storm of negative comments in order to normalise skin conditions? Putting the authority on young female users to call out negative comments, which appear to be primarily posted by young men, indicates we have a long way to go before acne ceases to be a feminist issue.
If you’re struggling with acne and would like some help, there are a handful of great resources. The Skin Health Info tab on the British Association of Dermatologists website helps dispel myths about acne and provides treatment tips. Online support groups like Skin Support also provide legitimate medical advice on living with skin conditions such as acne, and skin-positive Instagrammers like Lou Northcote, P and Constanza Concha are making big differences. Dr Ahmed implores young people who are struggling with the psychological impact of acne to approach their GP, too. “Acne is a very treatable condition,” she said, “and everybody should be entitled to get help if they want to, whether they are male or female.”