For years Becca Brown's hormonal acne made her feel hideous, anxious and crippingly insecure, so the last thing she wanted to do was get naked with her boyfriend
‘You never want to have sex anymore,’ my boyfriend said as I pushed him away for the third night in a row. ‘Have I done something wrong?’
The truth was, I didn’t want to have sex because my acne was making me feel hideous, but I couldn’t bring myself to say it out loud. I was ashamed of my bumpy, blemished skin and the last thing I wanted to do was draw attention to it. So, instead, I gave a convincing yawn and said, ‘No, I’m just tired’, before rolling over and pretending to fall asleep, while secretly crying into my pillow.
My boyfriend and I have been together for four years, and to begin with, we had a regular, healthy sex life; I felt comfortable with how I looked and confident that he was attracted to me. That was, until I got hormonal acne. As someone who’d always had clear skin, it came as a shock; I thought acne was something that happened to teenagers, not women in their twenties. I had no idea how to deal with the relentless fleet of spots spreading across my chin and jawline, and despite trying every diet and spending a small fortune on skincare, nothing I did could persuade them to retreat.
I felt completely out of control of my appearance, and so my self-esteem hit an all-time low. I was so worried about what people would think of my skin, that I began to actively avoid social situations; I routinely cancelled plans with friends, and called in sick at work. When I did have to face people, I’d talk to them from behind my hands or hair, desperately trying to hide the full extent of my spots. Before I knew it, I’d gone from a confident, outgoing person, to someone who struggled to leave the house on a daily basis.
Inevitably, these insecurities became a problem within my relationship, too. I felt overwhelmingly self-conscious around my boyfriend, and despite his compliments and affection, I just couldn’t believe that he found me attractive. So, we went from having sex a couple of times a week, to less than once a month. And, on the rare occasion we did have sex, I’d spend the entire time worrying that he was secretly repulsed by my skin. What was once a fun and comfortable experience, now felt like an anxiety-inducing ordeal that I wanted to avoid at all costs.
It turns out, I’m not alone. According to a study by The Mental Health Foundation, how we feel about our appearance can have a significant impact on our sexual wellbeing. Research shows that body image concerns inflate levels of self consciousness, which can negatively impact our sexual experiences. Their survey found that in the past year, 20% of adults claim their sex life has been negatively affected by their body image, while 15% of adults claim their relationship has been affected.
Peter Saddington, a sex therapist at Relate, explains how acne, in particular, can create issues within a relationship. ‘When people feel insecure about their acne, they may avoid being physical with their partner, because they’re afraid of being judged,’ says Peter. ‘However, by actively withdrawing and isolating ourselves, we risk creating a gap and distance within our relationship, which can lead to tension and anxiety for both parties.’
This is something I experienced, as not only did acne affect my own self-esteem, my withdrawal from intimacy affected my boyfriend’s, too. Our relationship and sex life had been suffering for almost a year and he was feeling increasingly anxious about the distance that I was imposing between us. The night when he asked me if he’d done something wrong was the moment I realised something had to change. I knew that in order to save both of our sanities, I had to open up and be honest about how I was feeling.
So I plucked up the courage to explain that acne had destroyed my confidence, and as a result, I was struggling with intimacy. It wasn’t easy, but I found that the more I talked, the more liberated and empowered I felt. (Of course, he was completely supportive, assuring me that he’d never even thought about my acne, let alone been bothered by it!) This conversation was the first in a long time where I felt in control of how people saw me, rather than my acne. It even encouraged me to open up to my friends and family, until little by little, I reclaimed my confidence.
I’ve now had hormonal acne for three years, and although my skin is more manageable (thanks to the wonders of veganism and all-natural skincare) I still have regular mild breakouts. Sometimes it bothers me, but I no longer let it dictate how I feel about myself, or let it drastically impact my life and relationship. Acne is a tough and exhausting battle, but I’m grateful for the lessons I’ve learnt and the new confidence I’ve found. I’d even go as far to say that overcoming my insecurities is my proudest achievement, and has made me the self-assured person I am today. Because spots come and go (eventually!), but my self-worth? That’s skin deep.