The day after he asked me if we could date exclusively, my boyfriend and I had an early dinner at some swanky High Street restaurant. The floor to ceiling windows welcomed the soft sunlight of late afternoon, and bathed us in honey as we sat on the same side of the table. Gazing into my eyes, his own sparkled with flecks of gold. I squeezed his hand and thought, "Damn, am I glad I met you." Interrupting the silence, he said, "You're so beautiful." Then, he stroked my face, and added, "But you'd be perfect if your face was smooth. What is all of this anyway? Isn't there a surgery you can get?"
I felt like I had whiplash. Before I could feel good about his first comment, I was already feeling bad about his last. But it was made in such a sweet tone that, in a split second, I convinced myself it was wrong to acknowledge how offended I was. So, I decided to simply answer the question at hand: Yes, there are different surgeries to get rid of deep acne scars.
Hearing this, he visibly perked up. "How much does it cost? I can pay for half." Before I could react, the appetizers came, and the conversation shifted.
The Long Road to Healed & Healthy Skin
This wasn't the first time someone had made a comment like this. After all, my skin is genetically predisposed to receiving unsolicited advice.
For instance, when I started breaking out in my early teens, my best friend—whose skin was so clear, she'd laugh at toner commercials and say, "What the heck is a blemish? These companies just make stuff up!"—would tell me to lather my face with some drugstore cleanser or other, and all would be well the next morning. (It wouldn't be.)
In my late teens, when the cystic acne and icepick scarring had really made a home on my cheeks, a guy asked me why I don't just wash my face more. I detailed my exhausting skincare routine, and he said, "Then why does your skin still look like that?!" I admit, I slammed the door on him.
Even my mother who, like many of my other titas and female cousins on that side of the family, has had a long battle with acne—was literally heavy handed in her criticism of my skincare. She's apologetic now, but back then, she had no idea she was making the issue much worse by regularly scrubbing my face with a sponge so abrasive it could clean a cast iron pan.
When, at age 19, I couldn't sleep or touch my face without causing my acne-ridden skin severe pain, I finally started going to a dermatologist. There, I was relieved to discover that all the "advice" I received was unhelpful (and harmful, at times), not because I was incapable of caring for myself, but because my skin was extremely sensitive. But the relief was short-lived. Under a doctor's watchful eye, the following years would be spent wrestling with various topical and oral prescriptions whose side effects were sometimes worse than the acne itself.
The first antibiotic I was placed on gave me a painful yeast infection. The second medication I was placed on was hormone-based and made me have my period of 28 days straight. The heavy duty ointment I was prescribed gave me a sunburn with a second's exposure to daylight. And the other topical treatment I used made the the skin around my chin crack and bleed when I talked.
When people make off-hand comments about the ways I should make it "better"—Present-Day Me gets very protective of Teenage Me, and all the things she went through just to get her skin to stop hurting.
As if that weren't enough, seven years into my skincare journey, I managed to get a subdermal pimple so big that my dermatologist audibly gasped when she touched it. Because she couldn't do anything for me, she referred me to a plastic surgeon who, with the help of two other doctors, sliced the cyst out of my face. Under local anaesthesia, I kept hearing them ask each other for "more skin hooks, please." While I'm deeply grateful for my plastic surgeon's care and skill, it was not a glamorous experience, and it was painful—on my face and on my bank account.
In short, my skin is as sensitive an issue as it is an organ. When people make off-hand comments about the ways I should make it "better"—Present-Day Me gets very protective of Teenage Me, and all the things she went through just to get her skin to stop hurting. While this face may be scarred, it is healed and it is healthy because of what my younger self endured.
My Boyfriend Saw Things Differently
I felt this protectiveness at the High Street restaurant, when my boyfriend urged me to undergo yet another painful and invasive skin-related procedure. What bothered me most was that he wanted it for his benefit, not mine. But I told myself it was just a one-time offense. So I let it go, and I ate my dinner.
Then, a month later, I met him and his friends at a bar. Wearing a skirt, I perched on the stool next to him and crossed my legs in his direction. Like a magnet, his hand went straight under the table, and affectionately stroked my freshly shaven shins all night. His friends, who were lovely, kept showering us with compliments about how sweet we were together. And he fueled it by sneaking kisses behind my ear, and refusing to move his hand from its new home under my knee. As the night wound down and his friends began planning where to head to next, my boyfriend surreptitiously leaned his face towards mine. I suspected he was going to ask me to spend the night. But instead, he grabbed my leg and said, "This is so smooth." And then, in front of his friends, he pointed his meaty finger at my face, and snarled, "But this isn't."
I did go home with him that night—to have our first fight. I told him his comments about my face made me feel like I was a monster who should be ashamed of myself. I remember repeatedly saying, "I want to feel beautiful when I'm with you." Meanwhile, his main point was that he should not be blamed for making a factual remark ("It's not my fault your face isn't smooth!"). I don't think the fight ever ended; we just fell asleep.
After that, we somehow stayed together for another year. And in that time, we returned to the same heated exchange frequently.
It came up on my birthday. Having dismissed my sister-in-law's tips on what to give me, he handed me P4,000 and said, "Buy makeup." Disregarding my massive Sephora collection, he insisted that I needed more supplies if I couldn't make myself look like the (airbrushed, filtered, and professionally lit) models he scrolled through before "relaxing" at night.
He turned to me and said, "I was looking at all the dancers last night, and then I looked at you—in your dress and your heels and your hair—and I just thought to myself, 'This girl isn't beautiful to me.'"
It came up when he lent me his laptop. Realizing I had seen that he'd recently tapped through hundreds of FB photos of his ex-fiancée's 19-year-old sister, his response was to explain that she was "like a piece art" and that he deserved to look at something nice once in a while, whether it's a painting or a teenager.
It came up when we broke up. We had gone to the ballet for Valentine's Day, and I had spent the night at his place. When we woke up, he turned to me and said, "I was looking at all the dancers last night, and then I looked at you—in your dress and your heels and your hair—and I just thought to myself, 'This girl isn't beautiful to me.'"
Embracing My Beauty
If I didn't respect the 19-year-old I once was, and the woman I became because of her, I might have been destroyed by his parting words. I might have let myself be stamped down into his two-dimensional view. I might have believed that I wasn't worthy of love because I didn't live up to a certain expectation of beauty. I might have convinced myself to get the surgery—not because I wanted it, but because I didn't want to be alone. I might have allowed his disgust to define me, my future relationships, my view of men.
Fortunately for me, he wasn't that sophisticated a manipulator, so it was easy to see his hatred of my face as unfounded and just plain weird. Plus, in the time we were together, #MeToo had reached a fever pitch. Therefore, terms like gaslighting, negging, and emotional abuse had already entered into the mainstream vernacular—and I could name what he was doing. Likewise, the skincare trend and its adjoining #skinpositivity movement was gaining momentum, with influencers showing their bare face and revealing lighting and makeup tricks to even skin tone. Hence, on a gut level, I understood that I couldn't possibly be as uniquely revolting as I felt in his presence.
It's cheesy, but after the breakup, instead of avoiding mirrors like I had been doing during the relationship, I would look at myself and say out loud, "This is good skin. Thank you, skin."
It also helped that I was surrounded with a great support system. Not only did my friends and family cover me with love, but I also had a reliable counselor who worked with me through the emotional stuff. And at the same time, my yoga and spin instructors were there to connect me to my body, and help me truly appreciate the beauty of what it does.
It's cheesy, but after the breakup, instead of avoiding mirrors like I had been doing during the relationship, I would look at myself and say out loud, "This is good skin. Thank you, skin." It's a practice I've kept up since. This gratitude has expanded to different parts of my body, including my hands, eyes, brain, and during the pandemic especially, lungs.
I didn't make it out unscathed though. When I scroll through my Instagram feed, I realize that I stopped posting photos of my face when I was dating him. And I never really picked it back up.
Also, for the first year after the breakup, I reworked my entire social calendar to avoid running into him because I couldn't imagine having to feel his eyes on my face. Even now, the thought makes me cringe.
But the discomfort is momentary. When I feel insecure about my skin, or any part of my body in fact, I recall what the dermatologist gently tells me every time she examines my scars: "If you want—only if you want—there's a surgical procedure we can do to change that." I know that everything about my appearance is fine the way it is. But it comforts me to know that I always have the option to get plastic surgery done, if I want. The key being: only if I want.
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