Jeff Phillips: A Sort of Pizza Face Fascism

Recently I found a zit in my armpit. I took a day or two off deodorant to let it clear before rubbing it further with comedogenic substance. It also conjured up memories and a special gratitude for how far my skin has come, how long it’s been since I’ve been subject to a temperamental uprising in my pores.

In middle and high school, my cases of acne got pretty hideous. The family doctor one time looked at my chest and winced, saying “that’s nasty.” Self-confidence wasn’t in the cards. I had the big cystic kind, sometimes blue pustules. There were pimples breaking out over pimples, constellations of zits on one big zit that was bursting from another. And I made it worse when I’d try to scrub it all away with a rough washcloth. It got so bad that just putting on a t-shirt would result in the fabric scaping open a black head and blood would seep through. I couldn’t wear white t-shirts for a long time. “Bacne” forces you into certain parameters.

My outermost organ was occupied. Red, bulbous cities rose up on my chest, shoulders and back. When such cities had fallen, the skin showed ruins, the bombs left craters. I went to war against pimple battalions.

(image credit: Katie Gassel)
(image credit: Katie Gassel)

What made looking in the mirror worse were the memory loops of assumptions both directed to me and ones I overheard. I worked as a cashier at CVS throughout high school. One evening a guy approached the counter and pointed at my face. “You know, what you gotta do is lay off the pizza and potato chips, man. That’s what you gotta do.” Another time an old lady at church looked at my face and said “ouch.” And a little kid once asked me if I liked chocolate. I responded “Sure, I like chocolate, why?” And the kid said that his mom told him chocolate causes pimples.

In Sociology my sophomore year, we were covering a unit on adolescent behavior. Somehow acne was brought up in a class discussion. A popular, pretty girl sitting up front shuddered and said, “I can’t stand looking at someone with pimples, it’s like, take a shower!” I couldn’t tell if she was just oblivious to my presence in the back of the room, or if this was a personal jab. Thing was, I’d take two, sometimes three showers a day. (For which I was later told by my dermatologist that over washing may have adverse effects. By drying out the skin, oil production overcompensates.)

I would apply thick layers of creams like Clearasil on my face before bed. A friend was over and while in my room, he noticed the bleached splotches on my pillowcase where my face had pressed cream into the fabric. He asked, “What the fuck happened to your pillow?” I was embarrassed about having to use acne creams and didn’t want to tell him this was what it was from. I tried to think quickly. I came up with, “Well I think that’s from toothpaste, and maybe I drool in my sleep.” Of course this prompted, “Why don’t you just rinse your mouth after brushing, Jesus Christ!” I didn’t know how to further the lie. I left it there, seeming more-so like a gross idiot.

I felt like a fuck up. People couldn’t quite look at me with a sense that something was right. I felt like a representation of nature gone berserk. The agitation and the disappointment was akin to getting crushed in a game of Sorry over and over and over again and having your balls busted by all-too-happy gloaters. My clear complexioned peers didn’t know how good they had it, didn’t know what it was like to weather such a losing streak.

But I railed hard against acne. While working at CVS I would scan my own Extra Care card when customers didn’t have theirs or didn’t want to sign up for a card. This helped me rack up Extra Care “bucks” to help me purchase new micro bead washes, exfoliants, astringents. The family doctor prescribed antibiotics, these were the muskets, but it was like the musketeers had poor aim. The results weren’t noticeable. But then there was this new drug, isotretinoin, or more commonly known as Accutane. Accutane was the nuclear bomb. I had started seeing a dermatologist toward the end of my sophomore year, and this new drug was prescribed as the last resort, as there was a wide array of pleasant potential side effects, like bowel inflammation.

Within a week my face dried out. Flakes and flaps of dead skin accumulated. Soon into week two, I was able to take a wet washcloth to it and gingerly peel the crusty skin off, to find that there was a smooth face underneath. I believe I was supposed to take the drug for a full year. But after 3 months, while looking at routine blood samples they were supposed take each month over the course of the treatment, my dermatologist came in the examination room in a panic. She was hyperventilating over her words while she told me we had to stop treatment immediately. My triglycerides, in her words, were “through the roof” and at dangerous levels. The big pill that I had taken that morning, would be my last. We stopped treatment and my triglycerides came back down, but my skin stayed relatively clear. I had a few zits pop up here and there in my remaining two years of high school, maybe a couple over the course of college, and early twenties. But despite the red alert triglyceride counts, Accutane is what helped me win the war.

Over the years, I’ve seen various commercials on TV with lawyers rounding people up to join a class action lawsuit against Accutane. The drug has been linked to psychiatric disorders. Warning labels now read: “Accutane may cause depression, psychosis and rarely, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts and suicide.” I’m glad to say I wasn’t one of those statistics. Lucky for me I was pulled from treatment before such a turn could develop, but long enough for it to do its intended trick.

When I went off to college, I felt less lonely when I’d learn, through self-deprecating jokes, that some of my friends also had to take the Accutane at some point in high school. There aren’t many bonds that match that of meeting someone else who had such a bad persistence of zits that they too had to take the strong stuff. Misfits, plane crash survivors and war buddies. It was like the peak of all of those comraderies commingled. Maybe I exaggerate, but man, it sure brought a certain peace to me to meet such people.

What I’m conveying here: If you see someone with an intense case of acne, or a lone zit for that matter, please refrain from commenting on it in the guise of never-before-heard advice. They are aware. Zits are incapable of circumventing a person’s self awareness. The person you are labeling as pizza face is a warrior and doesn’t need you to distract them with obvious and unimaginative stratagem.

Part of me wanted to write this because I recently got engaged to be married, and back in the days of the pimple’s aggression, I had it in my head that no pretty girl would ever want to marry me. I’m glad I now get to flaunt the opposite fact in the face of hundreds of thousands of pimple ghosts.

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2 Comments

  1. This is an excellent account of what it’s like to deal with issues of such social pain, while overcoming the consequences.The most damaging incidents occur toward young people during those dreaded teenage years, by teenage peers. Unfortunately, there aren’t many controls available to abate this situation, the taunting that is.

    Of all the problems young folks face, the most damaging is the effect of taunting by their peers. As it’s important to consider the other problems teens face, very little is done to facilitate the need to abate this taunting that many young people endure.

    It would be wonderful, if there were a way to get young people to read your article. Very good read and congratulations upon your survival of a tragic event.

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