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In the COVID era, nobody seems to care about my acne – me least of all

This First Person column is written by Morgan Dick who lives in Calgary. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ

The first one arrived in early 2020. A purplish nub, slightly squishy, slightly tender, right there in the middle of my chin. Others soon followed. Big ones, small ones, hard ones, soft ones. They multiplied quickly, engulfing my nose and mouth within weeks.

I ran to my family doctor, who confirmed the worst: Adult-onset acne. Mine happened to be cystic, which was as gross as it sounds. Painful, too. But not the end of the world, I reminded myself. I was a grown-up, after all, and grown-ups didn't let blocked pores stop them. 

While I braved my new affliction with platitudes, prescription drugs, and an outward look of indifference, on the inside — try as I might to deny it — my ego was smarting. 

Thanks in no small part to the privilege I hold as a young, thin white woman, I've always enjoyed a mostly positive body image. That's not to say I don't spend hours each week inspecting stretch marks and pinching belly fat and plucking stray hairs. I do. I scrutinize, I sigh, and I move on. 

But acne? In my late twenties? It felt wrong. It felt unfair. 

Even as the acne subsides, my doctor continues to treat my small complaint — and it is small, especially in light of the last 18 months — with seriousness and respect, writes Morgan Dick. (Morgan Dick)

Bristling at the injustice, I slathered my face with foundation and tried not to notice when colleagues talked to my zit-speckled chin instead of me. (A note to fellow acne-sufferers: invest in non-comedogenic products or forget makeup entirely; otherwise, you'll only feed the fire.)

Then came the pandemic: a new age of grainy webcam feeds. Overworked moms quit hiding their undereye circles. Professionals traded suits for sweats. With hair salons closed, TV anchors showed off their grey roots proudly. While my $60 foundation languished in a bathroom drawer, I buried my acne beneath a face mask (if I went out on a grocery run) and prepared to finish my master's degree via Zoom.

As our daily lives have shifted, so too have the values that govern them. Wrapped in shapeless yellow gowns, healthcare workers have taken the place of airbrushed celebrities on magazine covers. Today more than ever, as my home province of Alberta faces the swell of a fourth wave, we laud their courage and devotion. In a world where appearances once reigned supreme, inner character has waged a stealthy coup.

When I visit my doctor nowadays, she greets me with a smile — I can tell by the way her eyes crinkle — and what I imagine must be the hundredth daily washing of her chapped, pink hands. She wears that ubiquitous blue surgical mask, a set of goggles, and a face shield. If it weren't for her signature crop of curly blonde hair, I'd hardly recognize her.

But beneath all that plastic, she's the same doctor. She remembers my family history and what I'm taking in school. She reassures me. She problem solves.

Together, we've thrown an arsenal of hard-to-pronounce drugs at my acne: retinol, benzoyl peroxide, clindamycin, doxycycline, and most recently, isotretinoin, which causes a host of side effects and requires regular blood testing. One by one, the zits have shrunk and disappeared. My face today is scarred but mostly clear.

Even as the acne subsides, my doctor continues to treat my small complaint — and it is small, especially in light of the last 18 months — with seriousness and respect. She continues to smile and crinkle her eyes at me and listen patiently as I ramble on about my skin. About looks. We both know they don't matter anymore. And maybe they never did.

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