How Acne Positivity Accounts Are Helping People See Their Breakouts Differently

Thousands of people are posting airbrush-free #acnepositivity photos on Instagram to help themselves accept their skin — and push society to do the same. 

Woman With Acne On Her Face
Photo: Getty Images

Christina Yannello can recall her first breakout as vividly as most people can remember their first kiss or period. At 12 years old, she had suddenly developed a pimple smack dab in between her eyebrows, and a boy in her fifth-grade class blatantly asked what was on her face.

"That was a pivotal moment for me," says Yannello. "At the time, I didn't even know what was on my face or how to take care of it."

And that was just the beginning. Over the next decade, her acne ebbed and flowed from totally untamable to controllable and back again. When Yannello was a tween, dermatologists gave her different chemical treatments and put her on antibiotics without any results. An oral contraceptive made her teenage acne vanish for a few years, only to slowly return during her junior year of college. She slathered on topical treatments and creams, continued to take antibiotics, switched to an IUD, and eventually swapped it with a different birth control pill. None of it made a difference.

"My skin became completely unmanageable — I had no more control," says Yannello. "Not to mention, this took a massive mental and emotional toll on me. I was so embarrassed that I couldn't go out anymore or even be in front of my roommates without makeup."

Still, she was hesitant to go on Accutane, a medication used for severe, cystic acne that hasn't responded to other treatments. (Accutane, a brand name for isotretinoin, is no longer available, but other versions of the drug are.) She wanted to do some digging into Accutane before giving it a go. In her online research, Yannello unlocked an acne-positivity subculture on social media that would change the way she managed and viewed her breakouts.

More than 362,000 posts include the #acnepositivity hashtag on Instagram, with most of the images featuring up-close and personal snapshots of creators' skin. You won't see airbrushed features, thick layers of heavy-coverage foundation, and captions depicting a blissful, stress-free life, but rather bare-faced individuals showing off their breakouts of the day, sharing their favorite skin-care products, and detailing heartfelt stories of treatment trials, transformations, and experiences with skin shaming. "It gets tiring seeing the same image, the same face, the same clear skin over and over again — I know that negatively impacted my emotional and mental wellbeing," says Yannello. "But this realness and authenticity is just something you don't see every day."

Courtesy of @barefacedfemme

The skin positivity community's blend of resourcefulness and vulnerability not only inspired Yannello to try Accutane and launch her own account, @barefacedfemme, but it also helped her transform from an acne-insecure, self-deprecating person into someone confident and comfortable with her own skin, she says. "To see other people going through [skin troubles] and relating to it changed my mindset — it re-wrote the narrative in my head," she explains. "These people helped me, so I wanted to help someone else."

Another voice in the acne positivity movement is Constanza Concha, who runs @cottyconcha and gives herover 50,000 followers a raw look into her life dealing with nodulocystic acne (acne that's deep in the skin and can cause hard, painful cysts). The mission behind each of her posts is simple: to be the representation she never had during her own childhood. "I want to be what I wanted to have," says Concha. "I don't want someone else to go through loneliness and feeling bad about themselves like I did. If you have representation, if you have someone else that's going through the same struggles as you and has the same skin as you, I think your mindset will change and you will get more comfortable with yourself."

Constanza Concha

And that's exactly what happened for Vanessa Sasada. She began to notice more acne-focused, skin positivity accounts on social media and realized many of the accounts were run by people who had skin that looked just like hers. Then, in the midst of a particularly bad breakout, she gathered the courage to start her own account, @tomatofacebeauty. "I thought if I began posting my bare face and showing what my real skin looked like, then I would also begin to become more confident and accepting of my acne," says Sasada. "I wanted to start embracing my skin no matter what state it was in."

Within just three months of posting her acne scars, stressed-out skin, and makeup looks, Sasada's confidence skyrocketed, she says. "Before I started my account, the first thing I did when I woke up was sit in front of my mirror, analyze my skin, and see if any new breakouts arose while I was sleeping," she says. "A lot of times there would be, and it would just ruin my entire day. Now, if I get a new pimple, it's not a big deal. I no longer obsess over my skin or stare in the mirror for hours trying to look for something."

And having this no-stress take on breakouts and blemishes could potentially help improve skin issues, too, says Matt Traube, M.F.T., a psychotherapist who specializes in the psychological aspects of skin conditions. "We do know on some level that stress can negatively impact acne," he explains. "So if you're worried about acne, then all of this acne positivity reduces your shame and embarrassment about it, all of the sudden when you go out into the world or show your face to people, you're experiencing less stress...and I think it can have an impact on the acne itself."

Plus, when she goes out, Sasada doesn't feel pressured to apply full-coverage makeup on every occasion as she used to. "[People] didn't know how severe my acne was because I was so good at hiding it for so long, and I always felt like I was living a lie," she explains. "Before I posted my first photo, I never showed my bare face, but now it's not scary, and I feel a lot more comfortable showing my acne in all its glory."

That act of wholeheartedly accepting who you are as a human with acne — even if you do feel vulnerable or nervous about putting yourself out there — rather than feeling ashamed, covering up your breakouts, or avoiding seeing others altogether, is an important step in normalizing acne, says Traube. "You're humanizing the experience in a way that not only has an impact on you, the individual doing it, but also by doing it on a platform like social media (or going out in public in a way where you're essentially owning it), then you're positively impacting other people that are suffering from it in their own way," he explains.

Ayesha Amir

While the feedback isn't always positive — Concha has received her fair share of DMs with harsh critiques and unwelcome treatment suggestions — more often than not, the vulnerability of posting raw, unedited photos of zits and other skin woes pays off. The comments sections on many acne positivity accounts are flooded with messages of gratitude from followers who feel validated, seen, and accepted.

"I think with more people sharing their journeys, it's making acne not as much of a social taboo," says Yannello. "You don't have to feel insecure about going out with a pimple, and you don't have to feel like it's necessary to cover it. I think it's really important for younger women growing up to realize that acne isn't a bad thing."

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