Acne positivity: The skin movement that uplifted us in 2020

They post pictures on Instagram, and people’s lives have changed because of it

2020 was the year for self-improvement. Lockdown made us exercise more, experiment with our hair (with tragic results) and bankrupt ourselves for new looks on Depop. But something that also emerged this year was the rise of the acne positivity movement. 

While a lot of mask-wearing has been making acne flare-ups all too common, these activists have stepped out into the social media limelight, posting pictures of their skin to show people they are not alone, that acne is normal, and that they can accept themselves for exactly who they are. 

What is it about this movement in particular that has got so much attention in a year where Instagram activism seems to have taken off in a million different directions? Even within beauty movements, there are people advocating for the inclusion of different body shapes, disabilities, and skin conditions. We asked acne inclusivity influencers why they do it, and what they think this movement has meant for people in the year that Covid ruined everything: 

‘It’s changed the way I see myself’

Durham Uni student Sophie Dove (@skinwithsoph) made her account during lockdown, documenting her journey on Accutane, a medication used to treat severe acne. She had just finished treatment when she started uni: “I had really bad scarring and I wore makeup pretty much every day during Freshers’. I wouldn’t ever go out without makeup.”

After creating her account, Sophie found a completely renewed sense of self-esteem: “2020 has been a really hard year, and the only positive there’s been for me is creating this account. It’s changed the way I see myself and see others.”

Acne positivity

Kyrie (Credit: @kyrie_g_ on Instagram)

Kyrie (@kyrie_g_) had always been proud of having clear skin before last June when she began to suffer from acne that was so painful it was difficult to even get to sleep. “I went to the dermatologist and when I took off my mask she actually grimaced,” Kyrie said.

“I’d convinced myself my acne issues were quite normal, but because the dermatologist sees it so often and was shocked by my face I thought, ‘This is the worst acne anyone’s ever had’.”

Over the very quiet and boring summer when she wasn’t posting much on social media, Kyrie felt like she was lying to her followers. “I was lying to people on my Instagram as if I didn’t have acne”, she said. “I was self-conscious about going down to Tesco and people thinking ‘that’s not what she looks like Instagram’, so I thought I may as well just document it online.” She now has over 15,000 followers.

She continued: “I’m really enjoying being able to be completely transparent on my Instagram and not having to hide any version of myself. I can be so open and honest and not have to feel like I’m weird or not normal.”

‘I wish I knew about this whole community when I was younger’ 

A lot of acne influencers have seen their accounts take off in the short time they’ve been active, gaining thousands of followers. Sophie says that her main demographic is 18-24 year olds, but really she’d love to see younger teens who’ve just started dealing with acne engage with the movement. 

“The biggest thing for me about skin positivity is I wish I knew about this whole community when I was younger,” says Sophie. “When I was a young teenager I’d love to have seen accounts like this. So I thought I’d become what I wanted for my younger self.”

Patsy (@cystur) is an Art History student at Goldsmiths who started her account in October. She has a younger brother who she says “believes everything he sees on TikTok and Instagram.” When it comes to things like filtered and edited photos, however, she finds that “it’s really hard to tell kids what is true and what is not.” 

Patsy even struggles with the internet herself at times: “It feels like you open Instagram and everyone has been retouched and edited. You’re mostly aware it isn’t real but sometimes it’s so easy to forget.

“It’s cool if people use filters but we need more of an awareness of the fact that it’s not real. Seeing more makeup-free images on social media would create that sort of balance.”

Acne positivity

Patsy (Credit: @cystur on Instagram)

Some influencers have started supporting ‘neutrality’ over ‘positivity’  

Patsy has recently come to see “positivity” as an unhelpful term for thinking about her acne. She recently changed her bio from “skin positivity” to “skinclusivity”, and actually finds herself agreeing more with the term “acne neutrality”. 

“I was starting to see people discussing skin neutrality and body neutrality, and moving away from the positivity movement. I feel more strongly towards that because with positivity I feel it can actually be a bit forced and toxic.

“If you’re already someone that struggles and feel like you’re being made to be positive and shrug it off, it undermines people who struggle. I want to promote acceptance and neutrality.”

Salford Uni student, Faye (@fayes_skin), really believes in the term “acne positivity”, adding: “I think that in order for you to be at that neutral stage, you need to start by being positive.” 

For Faye, comments and messages from people who’ve been inspired by her account to go out without makeup for the first time have made her feel like her positive platform is making a difference.

Acne positivity

(Credit: fayes_skin on Instagram)

‘I just want to see more real people with real skin in adverts’ 

What these Instagrammers all agree on though, is that posting about real faces and real skin is a way of communicating disappointment with beauty brands that promote unrealistic skincare expectations. 

Faye wants companies to be more inclusive with the types of people they use to model in marketing campaigns. “I just want to see more real people with real skin in adverts. Acne is completely normal but we’ve been made to think that you’re not beautiful if you have it.”

Patsy says that even on social media itself, “there’s a lot of beauty accounts that promote make-up or skincare routines to make a bit of money. People need to realise that a 20-step skincare routine will not help your acne. It may even make it worse. That’s why I like talking about only using what you need to use, and accepting that it’s not going to happen overnight.” 

‘Skincare is not just a female issue’

Unrealistic beauty expectations are what drive people like Patsy to keep posting pictures. As someone originally from Bulgaria, she finds that “ though we think beauty standards in the west are very severe, if we look at places like where I’m from, beauty standards are just ridiculous. 

“It’s so heteronormative. Women are expected to be pretty and skinny and always have to wear makeup. If you don’t do all that it’s almost like you’re not a woman. I hope the skin neutrality movement could move and be witnessed back home in the future.” She has started a hashtag, #BulgariansWithAcne, to encourage friends to join the movement.

Skincare is so heavily marketed towards women that Sophie has noticed that even amongst acne influencers, there are very few men. “Something I’m really passionate about is that skincare is not just a female issue. It should be completely un-gendered and inclusive”, she says.

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A post shared by Sophie Dove (@skinwithsoph)

As far as the future of the acne acceptance movement, some activists like Faye hope that imperfect skin will become so normalised that “acne positivity accounts don’t even have to exist.” Others like Sophie want to see even more positivity accounts cropping up across all different skin issues such as eczema and rosacea. 

“One of the goals for people like us is to completely change society’s expectation of beauty”, Sophie says. “We’re not like the models we see on Instagram and I think it’s important for 2021 to be about accepting that about ourselves.”

Featured acne accounts: @skinwithsoph, @cystur, @fayes_skin and @kyrie_g_

Cover image credit: @fayes_skin, @kyrie_g, and @skinwithsoph on Instagram.