On the train with a friend recently, we were talking about our recent tinkerings with stuff about our bodies, which is a thing we both enjoy—she had run out of her favorite wildly-expensive face cream and couldn't afford more, so had been trying some other stuff. She asked if I was still using jojoba oil on my face, I said I was. I added that I'd started a fermented cod liver oil supplement, and thought it was really helping.
She said this: "But your skin's been good for awhile now."
I thought that was kind of a strange thing to say, because I feel like I'm always working on my skin, always messing with the routine, always reading up on something or other (physical or chemical exfoliant? Alpha or beta hydroxy acids?). So, naturally, I did what any sane person would do: I went home and looked at a million pictures of myself. (I have a nasty Photobooth habit.) And it turned out she was pretty much right. There had been a period of skin difficulty (which...now that I think about it...was also a period of stress and a period during which I was coming off hormonal birth control) right at the beginning of graduate school, when I met this friend. I kind of freaked out: I changed all my face products, and began devoting time and money to cosmetic concealment of the situation. I was meeting tons of new people—starting graduate school, dating for the first time in four years—and I didn't want to be zitty and blotchy while doing it. So I got on it, with a vengeance. But since then, the photo record shows, my skin has been reliably fine. I get breakouts, but nothing that can't be concealered away when I have the energy and inclination or motivation to do so, or that makes people react to me like I'm the Elephant Woman if I can't be bothered (which usually I can't, which is why I care so much in the first place).
So despite the fact that I feel like I've found The Thing, and am now just waiting until I get it all exactly right for long enough that my skin perfects itself, my skin now (jojoba oil, fermented cod liver oil supplements, castor and tea tree oil cleanser, sporadic AHA exfoliation and all) is not really significantly better than my skin before (twice-daily salicylic acid treatment, gentle cleanser for acne-prone skin, the same AHA product used near-daily, and all). Much to my dismay. My skin has been the same amount of fine for awhile now.
But what I'm always aiming for isn't fine skin. It isn't even good skin. It's perfect skin. I have the idea that if I just do everything right, find exactly the right combination of products and use them faithfully, experimenting until I find out precisely how many times per week my skin prefers to be exfoliated with alpha hydroxy acid, I will be rewarded with skin that looks naturally airbrushed when I wake up. It will be even and blotchless, the redness that creeps down my cheeks and over my nose will recede, leaving its flush only where one would put blush. I will know whether I have cool undertones or warm, a question which continues to devil both me and MAC consultants. I won't have little red marks from zits of yestermonth. If I do everything right. But inevitably I fall asleep without taking my nighttime cod liver oil dose every now and then, or I prop my chin on my hand for four hours at a stretch, and then the next time I get a zit, I know it was my own fault. Whenever I get a zit I can't attribute to a specific mistake, I wonder what I don't know I've been doing wrong. How long has it been since I laundered my pillowcase?
Perfectability is the promise. That it is all under my control, and if I get it right, I will be rewarded with...what?
With not having to worry about it anymore.
But I can, I think, choose not to worry about it anymore. That is, I don't have to say, "I hate how much I worry about my skin. When my skin is perfect, I will get some relief from that worry. I'd better make my skin perfect." I could theoretically say, "I hate how much I worry about my skin. I should stop. It's not really that big a deal."
This seems both rather obvious and rather difficult.