Recently, while I was having dinner with a friend, she said to me, “You know, you have beautiful skin.”
It’s a compliment I’ve heard before, and usually I just say “Thank you.” But this time, because I’d been thinking about the subject of this blog post, I said, “It’s because I have acne.”
She looked at me as though puzzled, and said, “I don’t see any acne . . .” So I had to explain. I’ve had acne since I was a teenager, and for a long, long time, I didn’t know what to do about it. My skin would break out regularly. It was not terrible; I’ve seen much worse cases. And my skin didn’t scar from it. But it was painful and embarrassing. (Anyone who thinks acne is just a cosmetic problem has never experienced it: breakouts are actually quite painful.) It was only in my twenties, when topical benzoyl peroxide creams became available, that I was able to get it under control. Over the years, I developed a skincare routine that worked for my sensitive, acne-prone skin. So, since my twenties, I’ve had to take excellent care of my skin. I’ve had to know what I was putting on it and why. Otherwise, breakouts.
Since my twenties, I’ve followed an invariable routine. Morning: cleanse, exfoliate, tone, moisturize (with a benzoyl peroxide cream). Then sunscreen (since the cream makes my skin more sensitive to the sun), or makeup with sunscreen in it. Night: cleanse, exfoliate, tone, moisturize (with the same cream). I’ve never gone without sunscreen, or to sleep with makeup on. I’m at the age now where I’m starting to get fine lines. But my skin feels clean and healthy, which is what’s most important to me.
I honestly don’t think it would be in as good shape if I didn’t have acne.
I was originally going to call this blog post “Flaws and Strengths,” but I don’t think my acne was as much a flaw (although I certainly experienced it as one — I felt flawed) as a challenge. And I’ve noticed that the places I’m strongest are the places where I’ve had to overcome or learn to manage challenges. (You can’t always overcome them — I haven’t overcome acne. I’ve just learned to manage it on a daily basis.) Once I started thinking about this topic, I started compiling a list of my personal challenges, the ones I’ve had to overcome or manage in order to become the person I am now. At the top of the list was “shyness.” I was a shy, introverted, sensitive child. The world isn’t a very easy place for a child like that, particularly if she’s also smart and ambitious. You don’t get through law school or a PhD program being shy and sensitive! One of the hardest things I had to do, as a graduate student, was teach: it was just me, in front of a group of twenty undergraduates, for an hour. Several times a week, for an entire semester. Before each class, I used to prepare so thoroughly that I barely needed my notes and could go off on tangents. That’s easier to do if you’re really, really prepared. And before each class, I used to have a conversation with myself, in which I reminded myself that I was a good teacher, that I should have confidence in myself. (Seriously, I would have to talk myself into confidence.)
Shyness is a problem in a writing career as well, of course. I used to prepare in the same way, talk to myself in the same way, before panels. I also used to request as many panels as I could, because I figured that if I was afraid to do something, I should do it as much as possible. If I did it enough, I would no longer be afraid. And it worked . . . I’m no longer shy, although I’m certainly still introverted. After a day of teaching (which now usually involves three classes, or a long and intensive workshop), I need time alone. I can be quite anti-social . . .
Another challenge on my list was going for a very long time in my life with very little money: through college, then law school, then graduate school. Even when I was a lawyer, making the most money I’ve ever made in my life (I don’t make anywhere near as much now), I was sending most of it to the loan companies to pay off my law school loans. I had incentive to live off as little as I could. (That’s why I decided not to call this post “Flaws and Challenges”: lacking money is certainly not a flaw, although society often makes us think it is.) But I learned to be thrifty. I love beautiful things, so I learned how to find or create beauty without spending much money on it. How to buy furniture from thrift stores, or even in some cases find it by the side of a road, then repair and paint and refinish. How to find clothes I loved and that made me happy on a very strict budget. All the different ways in which one can save money, and what one really needs. (I learned the valuable lesson that I can feel quite rich as long as I have the necessities, by which I mean things like a can opener, and small luxuries, by which I mean a beautiful teacup or scarf.)
We are strongest where we have been challenged, just as bones are strongest where they have broken and then healed. It’s how we respond to the challenges, the way we overcome or manage them, that makes us strong. I think that’s because we don’t really like growing, becoming stronger. It’s uncomfortable. We don’t like having to conscientiously take care of our skin, or exercise and eat right very day, or budget carefully. We only do those sorts of things when we have to. Challenges force us to.
Make a list yourself: what are your challenges, how have you dealt with them? I bet you’ll find that having dealt with them has made you stronger. At least, that’s my hypothesis.
(The photograph is of me on an overcast spring day in Boston. I took it to test the light, but then decided I liked it as a photo even though I’m so solemn in it. In that cold, gray light, my skin looks luminous . . . I particularly like the pink scarf which, yes, was bought at a thrift store. It always gives me a sense of satisfaction to find a pashmina for $2.99!)