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Dear Skin

by Jess Chua


I remember checking myself out before a preschool performance, curious about my reflection in the mirror. My teachers laughed at how vain I was before complimenting my “fair” skin.


In prepuberty, a big skincare company handed out free facial cleanser samples to everyone in my grade. “They’re telling us we’re ugly!” my classmate smirked.


I devoured several magazines throughout my teen years, observing the poreless skin in advertisements, absorbing the skincare tips shared by beauty editors. The religious fervor of it was always apparent, underscoring that beauty might indeed be skin-deep, and more important than doing anything for your mind or spirit.


Picture of a person's upper chest and neck, exposing their skin.
Image credit: Ramez E. Nassif on Unsplash

Was beauty really just about aesthetics? My clean and clear skin was my saving grace during my bad-haircut-awkward phase where I was half-taunted, half-pitied by a former best friend turned popular girl. I experimented with makeup and flat ironed my hair several times. An unrequited crush, who’d previously deemed me as “not one of the pretty girls”, suddenly showed interest. Sales associates were much more friendly, and my self-consciousness skyrocketed with the additional attention.


It was a quick lesson on how to be less invisible.


When adult acne hit me, I realized how blessed I had been as a teen with lovely skin. Dyshidrotic eczema was another skin woe that made even cystic acne feel good.


I applied a “lazy skincare” approach during this time, despite beauty editors’ efforts to remind women my age about preventative Botox and beginner anti-aging products. I didn’t have a lot of money for anything fancy and enjoyed a calm complexion in-between acne breakouts.


Crushed dreams defined my twenties. Whether it was endless revolving relationships or failing to make a living from creative pursuits, nothing went right in key areas of my life. Nobody would have guessed this whenever I dressed up in chic looks on a budget. Staying trim didn’t require too much effort at the time, and socializing was easy if you looked good.


I took a menial job to pay the bills and to have some semblance of a more normal life. It took me forever to eke together some savings and live independently. By the time I did, shame and defeat were embedded under my skin.


Life’s previous anxieties were nothing compared to aging distress. I had always thought of aging-related anxiety as something vain; surely there was more to do in life besides worrying about one’s appearance? My perspective changed when I seemingly started to age overnight once I passed my mid-thirties.


Something new popped up daily in the mirror—more gray hairs, more fine lines and wrinkles, the inevitable early signs of skin beginning to sag and lose its physical integrity.


I felt guilty for being in a mini existential crisis when I wasn’t relying on my looks to make a living. There was also the time and money involved with upgraded skincare options. How much was I willing to spend? How much, as a woman, was I expected to be willing to spend? Could I accept the risks with potential tweakments? I’d done enough doom-scrolling to know that fillers could migrate or that Botox could cause muscle atrophy and loss of bone mass.


I admired women who viewed aging as a privilege, as I felt myself creeping back towards being not just invisible, but also irrelevant.


After a couple of sessions where I explored this with my therapist, I figured that my life as it used to be over. No more carefree living, no more adventures, no more sailing ahead based on the bloom of youth. The end of being able to make mistakes with few repercussions if you were lucky. The end of an era.


It was once I accepted this that I started to feel more confident from deep within, for the first time ever. Not seeking validation from others, forgoing toxic people and relationships, feeling less afraid to speak up, being financially literate, prioritizing work life balance. These were milestones of freedom.


Acknowledging the door had closed on my helter-skelter younger years was the stepping stone to a new journey. It’s one where, despite some wrinkles and visible signs of aging, I’m learning to be much more comfortable in my own skin.


***



Jess Chua is an award-winning essayist and sketch artist. Her writing has appeared in Musepaper, Mystery Tribune, and Black Hare Press anthologies. Her interests include healthy cooking, yoga, and spending time with her pets. She's working on a chapbook. Her website is www.jesschua.com

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