'Acne Neutrality' May Be a Better Confidence-Boosting Benchmark Than 'Acne Positivity'

But can we ever stop caring what our skin looks like?

Photo: Imaxtree

Concealer is out.

Today's pimple-possessing beauty enthusiasts prefer to cover their spots in stars, or flowers or connect-the-dots constellations. Or slather them in high-shine face oil. Or even let them live as-is.

This is the skin positivity movement, and it's thriving.

It was inevitable, really. Body positivity is at its peak — see: the downfall of Victoria's Secret, the domination of Savage x Fenty — and as the clichéd saying goes, skin is the body's largest organ. But where body positivity pushes back at society's narrow view of what makes a body beautiful, skin positivity pushes back in the complexion category… because approximately zero actual human beings have the poreless, perfect skin portrayed in airbrushed ads and Facetuned Instagrams. "Acne is the most common skin concern in America," as Julie Schott, the founder of new skin-care brand Starface and a longtime beauty editor, tells Fashionista. "It's not going anywhere." In other words: You might as well make peace with your pimples.

This particular brand of skin celebration started with a hashtag. A scroll through #skinpositivity (or #acnepositivity) reveals raw, relatable, refreshingly unfiltered images — real people rejecting unrealistic beauty standards. Snaps of under-the-skin cysts and about-to-pop pustules abound. There are close-ups of pockmarks and psoriasis selfies. The account @rosacea_bae is a nod to the red, cherubic cheeks that accompany the condition. The goal? To embrace one's so-called "flaws," rather than erase them.

"When I started my Instagram account, it was initially about tracking my [skin's] progress and just taking pictures," says skin-care influencer Sofia Grahn, who set out to share her experience with isotretinoin (formerly Accutane) on social media via daily selfies as @isotretinoinwiths. "Through the acne community, I found people who actually said they were 'skin positive.' It was kind of mind-blowing." The concept grabbed Grahn and wouldn't let go; she soon abandoned her plan of documenting "the perfect before-and-after" and decided to practice positivity, instead. Today, nearly 30,000 people follow her for content that highlights — never hides — her acne scars.

Alas, as is often the case with counterculture movements, skin positivity has kinda, sorta been co-opted by capitalism.

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A small crop of early-adopting skin-care brands has emerged in the space, all aiming to make comedones cool. There's Glossier, of course, from the always-dewy Emily Weiss. Recent ads for its Futuredew serum-oil hybrid showcase skin with lingering scars, highlighter-blurred blemishes and megawatt glow. Newcomer Squish, the brainchild of body-positive model Charli Howard, sells the aforementioned flower-shaped pimple patches on its dreamy Gen Z website, where they're worn by a diverse group of acne-prone models. Starface and its selfie-worthy hydrocolloid stickers are in the mix too, although Schott says, "I wouldn't say we're 'skin positive,' because that should be a given across the board in this category."

These brands and their founders — the kind of "effortlessly cool girls" for whom a blemish is but a beacon of relatability amidst an array of otherwise flawless facial features — embody what London College of Fashion researcher Rosie Findlay has dubbed 'aspirational realness," as reported by Quartzy.

The marketing technique relies on "collapsing the distance between image and consumer," she says, "deliberately suggest[ing] to a brand's target demographic that all it would take to embody the idealized state of one of their models … would be the purchase of their products." In the case of Squish, for example, the average acneic customer imagines pressing on a pimple patch and becoming as low-key cool as Howard. "She has pimples and she's still beautiful," they might think. "I have pimples and I'm still beautiful."

Not that this co-opting is necessarily a bad thing: Beauty brands built on positivity have the ability to bring the movement's message to a larger audience — to those who might not stumble across the hashtag organically, or who might struggle to adopt a skin positive mindset while simultaneously being pummeled with images that promote impossible beauty standards.

The problem with for-profit positivity is that the positivity only goes so far. Glossier proclaims its products are about "being OK with yourself today"... but, it seems, not too OK. Just OK enough to choose a $26 bottle of sheer Perfecting Skin Tint over a thicker alternative; enough to cover "imperfections" in a way that implies you're not covering anything at all. And sure, a star-shaped zit sticker pretty much screams, "I have acne and I'm not trying to hide it!"... but the end-goal, as Starface says, it still to "suck [out the] zit juice" and get rid of that little sucker. Essentially, these products "signal relatability" without actually "disrupting the aspirational subjectivity being modeled," Findlay writes.

With this in mind, some question whether the skin positive movement can have a net positive impact."The message that 'all women are beautiful, flaws and all!' is really nice, but it isn't fixing anyone's body image problems," Dr. Lindsay Kite, the co-director of Beauty Redefined, revealed in a TEDx talk about her research into beauty standards and self-worth. “That's because girls and women aren't suffering only because of the unattainable ways beauty is being defined — they're suffering because they are being defined by beauty." This particular quote has become something of a battle cry for body image activists, and has sowed the seeds for a new standard of self-acceptance.

"Aspirational real" girls may be pushing positivity, but the real real girls are moving onto something else entirely: neutrality.

To be clear, "skin neutrality" isn't exactly A Thing yet; at the time of writing, the term has fewer than 100 tags on Instagram. But if the skin positivity movement continues on the path of its predecessor, it's only a matter of time until neutrality is the new normal.

The slightly-more-mainstream idea of #bodyneutrality is one I discovered by way of Annika Benitz Chaloff, the lingerie designer behind Hey Mavens. "If body positivity says, 'all bodies are beautiful,' body neutrality says, 'all bodies are bodies,'" Chaloff tells Fashionista. It takes the focus off of what the body looks like — whether putting it down or putting it on a pedestal — and accepts that it just is, as it is. "The concept totally clicked for me," the designer says. "All the mixed-up feelings I had about how body positivity puts so much emphasis on the external, much to the exclusion of many groups, finally washed away by this overwhelming feeling of, it doesn't matter." In a body neutral world, there's no need to deem all bodies "beautiful," because beauty doesn't matter. Worth comes from within, Chaloff explains, and "appearance does not have a bearing on your inherent value."

Listening to her stance on neutrality, I felt it click, too — but for skin care.

As a conflicted beauty editor constantly questioning the industry I'm in, I can't help but feel frustrated by the content I read and sometimes, the content I write; the ads I'm served and the products I promote. Even with a skin positive approach, it can all seem depressingly superficial. (Like swapping the term "anti-aging" with the less-aggressive "aging well" while hawking wrinkle cream, as is Allure's policy. A matter of semantics at most, no?) The thought of a skin neutral future, though, feels oddly freeing. What if the message wasn't how to suppress your pimples, but how to support your skin? What if it was less about manipulating its appearance, and more about meeting its basic needs — no matter what that looks like?

I scoured the internet for like-minded skin-care enthusiasts and found Lex Gillies — also known as @talontedlex — a skin positive influencer and skin neutral pioneer.

Gillies was diagnosed with rosacea at 21. “I felt extremely isolated — I didn't see anyone who looked like me and was bombarded with messages about clear skin and beauty as though they were mutually exclusive,” she tells Fashionista. She discovered the skin positive community after taking up blogging — but as she's dealing with a “chronic, lifelong condition” and not, say, the occasional pimple, positivity leaves something to be desired. Gillies craves detachment. “I consider myself skin positive but working towards being skin neutral,” the influencer says. Her followers are following suit.

“The ultimate goal is that we see all types of appearance represented everywhere, and not just as a token gesture to make a brand look inclusive,” Gillies explains — and not as a way to call attention to said inclusivity, either. It's not about shouting that “all skin is good skin,” it's about showing that all skin is simply… skin. A flesh-suit, an outer coating, a functional layer holding your insides together — not a signifier of status, or factor of self-worth or even something to be proud of.

The idea is certainly appealing on an individual level. I mean, can you imagine the time and money and stress you'd save if you just accepted the way you looked, right this second, without wanting to change it? But on an industry level, it's less appealing — for all the same reasons.

Brands profit off of people who're unhappy with their skin; it's basically how the beauty industry operates. (Just look to IT Cosmetics Confidence In A Cream, or Dermelect's Self Esteem Serum… products that ostensibly do not deliver confidence or self-esteem, but “better” skin.) “When you start to struggle with your skin, you start by looking into skin-care and you start to look at products,” says Grahn. “I spent a hefty amount of money on skin-care. It was a bad cycle of just purchasing and then throwing them away [when they didn't work], and I never found a solution.” Brands can also profit off of people who celebrate their skin, as Glossier's unicorn status illustrates. But neutrality has no monetary motive.

Being a body neutral business owner has presented a unique challenge for Chaloff. “When I say to my potential customers, 'It doesn't matter what you look like,' perhaps I'm saying to them, 'You don't need to spend money on clothing,' which is what I sell,” the designer muses. But in her mind, you can love your body (or skin) without it playing into your sense of self-worth. “Having fun and enjoying your body does not mean that you are vain, or that you place all your value on your body,” she says. “We are all existing on this earth inside of our bodies, and I don't think there's any shame in enjoying that experience.”

It's admittedly tricky territory to navigate, for companies and consumers alike. Even skin neutrality's biggest supporters aren't quite there yet. "I would love to be in a position where I don't think about my skin at all, but I think when you live in a society that makes harmful judgments and assumptions based on appearance, that is more difficult than it sounds," Gillies acknowledges.

"Skin neutrality would be the ultimate goal, and I feel that's the underlying message when people preach positivity," Grahn agrees. According to the influencer, one is only possible through the other. You need a positive value judgment (celebrating your body or skin) to counter a negative value judgment (feeling bad about your body or skin) — before you can arrive at a place where there's no appearance-based value judgment at all. "Through this practice, I have learned to distance myself from placing my value into the state of my skin," she says. "My self-confidence and my self-worth are so much better these days, just because I'm not focusing so much on my appearance anymore. It's been a huge relief to be able to let go of that."

Letting go is easier said than done of course, and in that sense, skin neutrality is "aspirational" in its own way — but not unattainable. "I'm sure there was a time when the idea of body positivity seemed ludicrous, and look how widely accepted it is in our society now," as Chaloff points out. "I don't think neutrality is far behind."

Until then, slap a star on that freshly-formed zit on your forehead and learn to love it.

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