[CW: Blood mention, some graphic details about scars and wounds]
Of the few childhood photos I have access to and from what my relatives tell me, I was once a baby with beautiful lily-white skin. Summer after summer of romping around in the dirt under the hot California sun, however, significantly darkened my complexion into my adolescence. I started to get mistaken for different ethnicities. Being outside so much without supervision often triggered my hay allergies and my arms and legs broke out in ugly rashes. It didn’t help that my face was also riddled with scars from roughhousing with the neighborhood kids and getting into very physical fights with my brother. Never one to think ahead or have much patience, I would always pick at and peel off the scabs on my face and come home with dirty, bloody fingernails and a rebellious grin.
My mother, not amused and decidedly concerned about my prospects as a presentable human being, went straight for the traditional beauty products. She came home with one of the most expensive things you could buy in an Asian supermarket: edible bird’s nest. It’s a rare delicacy that is known for its medicinal properties.
A quick Google search says that a case of these can be priced to upwards of $100, which goes to show how desperately my family wanted me to have a perfect complexion. 8-year-old me wasn’t into it.
Around the same time I started my first onset of pubescent insecurities, my Vietnamese family started to bemoan my deteriorating beauty as well. Their moisturized hands poked and examined my face and limbs like they were assessing fine china and clucked, “You’re pretty enough to get by. Once you’re older you can pay for surgery for that face.” It was the first time I learned that my face was something that needed fixing.
I’ve always loved wearing light pastel colors, but my family discouraged me from doing so (“They make your face look dirty, dark, unclean”). As I got older and gained some curves from puberty I was teased by my family for indulging in eating more than what was considered a ladylike serving. I learned to hate my thighs and my cheeks, and eventually started to pick at those too. Eventually over the course of high school I outgrew this and was able to focus my energies elsewhere until just recently.
I’m 20 now and my eczema came back full force when I moved into my current apartment. My hands started to become scaly and irritated. What started out as minor bug bites devolved into nasty wounds because when I scratch a bad itch, I scratch until I bleed. Sometimes I’ll scratch even further into the raw flesh. The skin on the back of my legs was the worst. They were two huge open wounds and for weeks it hurt to walk or use the stairs. I felt self-conscious about exposing my legs for the first time in years.
My skin is the ugliest it’s been in a long time.
In the midst of my dermatological troubles I got my second tattoo a couple of weeks ago after months of working with an artist to create the design. It felt good. It helps me feel like I actually am in control of my impulses and have the power to choose what permanently stays on my skin.
I went to a dermatologist on campus for a consultation and he said that I needed to be gentler with my skin. Cooler showers, shorter baths, soothing lotion, protective sunscreen, and, as always, hydration. It’s easy to forget that our bodies are vessels that need to be taken care of before they start to revolt against us. I asked him if there were products I could use to lighten the hyperpigmentation of my darkest-looking scars and he shrugged and said, “You can’t quite undo the damage, but you can stop the habit and prevent it from getting worse.” Strangely, this was good enough for me.
Once, a lifetime ago, I complained to my aunt about how insecure I felt about the countless gruesome dark marks that disfigured me. She pointed to her face and said, “Look, I have them too. These are all battle scars. Each one has a story.” My aunt was looking pointedly at my then torn-up knees from a particularly embarrassing scooter accident. “When people look at you they won’t just see another girl. They’re going to see a warrior, a survivor. That’s something, right?”