Collage by Jao San Pedro.

Collage by Jao San Pedro.

I have these pretty intense skin discoloration spots all over my back/shoulders, and they make me extremely self-conscious. They look like really bad acne scars, and while I’ve never gotten any comments about it, I can feel people looking and it makes me not want to wear clothes that reveal my back or shoulders. All of my friends and family keep telling me to love every part of myself, even my “scars,” but I just don’t get how to. Do you have any advice on loving yourself and accepting skin differences? —Sabrina, 17, USA

First of all, your friends and family know what’s up—you definitely shouldn’t allow this skin discoloration to prevent you from loving yourself. But, at the same time, I think it’s totally natural and OK to feel frustrated about these spots. I say this as someone who has had something called post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH)—dark spots that, for me, have followed acne breakouts on my face and back—for decades. Yes, decades!

Like you, when I was in high school, I was extremely self-conscious about my skin. I never wanted to wear anything that would expose my back. This meant that I never went swimming because I didn’t want to wear a swimsuit, and come prom time, my dress options were very limited. No strapless gowns, no halter gowns—it sucked. I was the one putting these restrictions on myself, and I could’ve worn whatever I wanted but, at the time, I just couldn’t make that emotional leap—I couldn’t be comfortable putting my back on display like that.

These days, however, I wear tank tops. I’ve also just recently been swimsuit shopping. Has my skin cleared up? Nope. The PIH that I’ve had practically since puberty isn’t going away. But I’ve grown to accept it. Now, you’re probably thinking, What? So I have to wait years until acceptance and self-love finally wash over me? The answer to that is maybe—only you’ll know for sure. However, there are some practical steps that you can take now to help the process along.

First, wear those clothes that reveal your shoulders and back. You don’t have to do it every day. Maybe you only do it a couple of times a year. But on the days that you wear those outfits, I think you’ll see that the world remains pretty much the same as it was when you covered up your back.

As far as being stared at—I won’t lie—that’s something that you might have to deal with. I don’t even really know for sure that anyone has looked at my spots, or if they cared. Like you, I’ve never experienced someone commenting on my PIH. But when we’re self-conscious about something, we sometimes make the assumption that that thing that we’re insecure about is as noticeable and objectionable to other people as it is to us. What I had to do to get myself to a point where I was comfortable wearing clothes that showed my PIH was to force myself to stop inventing criticism that I wasn’t actually receiving. So when I was wearing my tank tops or whatever, I concentrated on whatever it was that I was doing. I tried to be present in that moment and not let my mind drift to all of those negative thoughts. Whether or not people are staring, you kind of have to fake it until you make it. Try your best to ignore the stares or the imagined criticism, and eventually you will get to the point where you don’t have to try so hard to ignore it, and you can just go about your day. What if someone does stare, though—is it something you can’t recover from? That’s for you to answer, but for me, realizing that nothing horrible happened when people were able to see my PIH spots also helped me to not be so self-conscious.

Redirecting focus is also key. If I’m looking in the mirror and I notice that I’ve developed two new dark spots on my face, I’ll definitely roll my eyes or be annoyed, but then I’ll shift my attention elsewhere. Like maybe my bangs have fallen awesomely that day. Other times, I’ll have to make a mental list of the things that I enjoy about myself to combat those negative feelings whenever I feel them creeping up into my brain. Another thing that can be a real self-esteem booster is calling or texting my boyfriend or my best friend. I don’t necessarily have to bring up my skin or whatever it is that’s bothering me, but just talking to someone who you love and who loves you back is nice. This is someone who sees and appreciates all the good in you. When you can’t bring yourself out of a crappy mood, sometimes you have to look to friends and family for help.

And when all else fails, try and focus on all of the qualities that you are confident about. Sure, your skin is part of who you are, but it isn’t the only thing that makes you you. Right? When you concentrate on qualities that are easy to see in a positive light, the things that you’re self-conscious about won’t hold so much power over you. Pushing past the things that you’re self-conscious about—letting people see your back and shoulders—takes courage. And that courage is something that you should love about yourself.

Having to deal with skin differences in a world of Neutrogena commercials, airbrushing, and photo filters is hard. Building self-esteem in the face of all of that is something we all have to work at, and something that takes time. While you’re bound to get frustrated along the way, you have to make the conscious decision not to dwell on those spots or allow them to stop you from wearing the clothes that you want to wear, living the life that you want to live, and from being yourself. –Amber ♦

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