Coming from different aspects of the beauty continuum as we do, we’ve both had a longstanding interest in beauty and the perception of beauty and how they can impact how people feel about themselves and one another. Two of the biggest things to impact teens’ psyches are weight/body issues and acne, so we decided it would be interesting to conduct an image-based study quantifying exactly how acne can alter others’ perception of teens. The study coincided with National Acne Awareness Month, and the results were very interesting.
Working with the American Acne & Rosacea Society (AARS), we asked thousands of teens and adults to offer their first impressions of teens based only on photos of their face. One face was without acne and one had been digitally enhanced with acne. The results showed that teens with acne are more likely than teens without acne to be perceived as shy (39% vs. 27%), nerdy (31% vs. 17%), and lonely (23% vs. 13%). Perhaps not surprisingly, the opposite also proved true: teens without acne were more commonly perceived as self-confident (42% vs. 25%), happy (50% vs. 35%), and leaders vs. followers (49% vs. 29%).
We were expecting the results of the study to show that having acne would be difficult for teens, which it does, but what we both found most distressing was the extent to which acne can really skew the way society perceives teens. We live in a very visual society and based on the survey results, people do make snap judgments about teens with acne. The results illustrate the fact that unfortunately, acne does play a role in how teens are viewed by both their peers and adults. So, what starts as a purely medical condition can have emotional and psychological implications for young people who are often already dealing with social, sexual and cultural chaos.
Our colleague Dr. Diane Berson, Assistant Professor in the Department of Dermatology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University and a founding board member of AARS said, “What surprised me most about the survey was confirming the length teens will go to improve their acne and what they are willing to sacrifice.” According to the study, if they could have clearer skin, 59% of teens would go cold turkey on Facebook for one year, 30% would give up dating for 12 months, 13% would take their mom or dad to the prom (now that’s a sacrifice), and 11% would be OK with seeing their grade point average drop. That’s testament to the desperation with which teens view acne and its role as a kind of marker of social stigma—a modern-day Scarlet Letter, if you will.
To us, this indicates a strong and urgent need to connect with teens about what acne is and who develops it so that we can bust the myths surrounding it and foster greater self-esteem in those unfortunate enough to develop it. Human beings of any age have a hard enough separating appearance from intelligence and moral character. How much more difficult must it be for youths who are in the process of slowly (and sometimes painfully) discovering who they are and developing own their body image? By teaching teens that acne is a disease, not a verdict, perhaps we can help foster greater understanding and kindness while making one of the obstacles on the path to adulthood a little easier to climb.
Debi & Eva