I threw a lot of time and money at my face. It wasn’t worth it.
Jan. 20, 2020
Mine is a before-and-after of the kind that is often promised in midafternoon infomercials: a transformation so stark that it’s impossible not to derive a little stab of pleasure from people’s faces when I show them pictures of what my face looked like in 2015.
A moth-eaten curtain, Swiss cheese, the surface of Mars as zoomed back by the Curiosity rover: There is no dearth of resemblances I could invoke for the before, a pimple-dotted landscape that I used to bear with all the piousness of a reluctant martyr.
Now, in the after, sunlight bounces off the medication- and money-induced smoothness with a glare similar to that emanating from car windows covered in tint film.
My skin cleared up around the same time that I came into earning a reasonably livable salary. Like the many unmoored people of my generation who, in absence of the markers of stable life denied to us, embraced the deceptively seductive cult of skin care, I began spending madly on serums, exfoliants, humectants and occlusives.
I became fluent in the language of acids (lactic, azelaic, mandelic, glycolic), learned the difference between phenols banned in Europe but permitted in America, and subsequently ran out of space on my dresser to store my many many bottles of stinking, stinging substances and my arsenal of cruel-looking implements.
For the first time in my life, I could afford these middling indulgences and soak in the modest glamour they beheld, even if they didn’t work the miracles they promised. There was the $105 lactic acid serum that the internet swore would give even nobodies like me a glow as youthful as a 1 percenter with a good cosmetic dermatologist. (It did not.)
I could experience the act of tending to my face as a luxury and not as the tedious medical maintenance of past years: holding my breath to swallow the nausea-inducing pills that were meant to dry out my pus-filled cysts so that they wouldn’t burst and bleed on the pillowcase; gently scraping flakes of skin dandruff off my chin, the side effects from a rubbery acne ointment that smelled like burning tires.
When examined against the ancient and often gory tradition of men and women who got carried away in a feverish pursuit of preserving the elasticity of their visages, my hapless collection of nightly peels and acids hardly merits consideration.
But what had begun as an endeavor that brought me some materialistic joy somehow evolved into a personal Olympics of overcompensation, in which my new and improved self, aglow with its barely visible pores and its newfound class-passing brought about by La Prairie, was ready to obliterate the memory of who I was before.
Look at me now, I wanted this new money-infused face of mine to scream, whether at myself or at the world (I still do not know). Not only have I fought against my genes and my body and won — WON — I have also acquired enough meaningless outward signifiers to pass comfortably through the cordoned-off domains of an unfair world where your pore size screams out your tax bracket.
My reign as the sore winner of this imaginary competition lasted a year, at the end of which a hillock of breakouts suddenly emerged along both cheeks. Unlike the volcanic craters that had once been in their place, these were merely a signal that my post-age 25 hormones were in a tumult, nothing that a prescription wouldn’t cure (and it did).
But the resurgence sent my insides roiling, first into panic, then resentment and ultimately into a reluctant peace, once the realization set in that no amount of money (of which I don’t have much) or the entire spectrum of AHAs, BHAs or PHAs can rein in what is really just a medical affliction, and which must be treated as such.
The class cosplay with clinking glass bottles was nice while it was still a novelty. But now it is tiresome. It is boring. It is expensive. And I have neither the willingness nor any motivation to go on performing this elaborate toilette for an audience of one.
Iva Dixit is an associate editor at The New York Times Magazine.
Photo illustration by Tony Cenicola/The New York Times