Like many preteens going through puberty, I had acne. And like many preteens suffering from the problem, I was mortified by it. Starting when I was 12, each new blistering breakout made me anxious to go outside, let alone attend school, talk to my classmates or meet new people.
While my skin cleared up a bit once I emerged from the universally awkward hell known as adolescence, I still have leftover facial scarring and intermittent breakouts that make me apprehensive to appear in photos or CNET videos without makeup.
But recently, I've begun to embrace this lingering insecurity. And surprisingly, it all stems from Reddit, a site many consider to be the most toxic place on the internet because of the infamous vitriol and trolling by some of its millions and millions of anonymous users. I once shared that opinion. But then, I found a community that discusses everything from the best sunscreen to the repercussions of rigid cultural beauty standards. It's because of this group I've started to make peace with the imperfect skin I'm in.
A complicated start
My older sister also struggled with acne. Between us, we tried nearly everything: drugstore cleansers, the Proactive home-delivery program for clear skin, even prescription medicine that made us nauseous.
My mother, bless her, took me to a facialist who poked and needled my face until I once burst into tears from the pain. (It didn't help that during these procedures, I had to look up at a gigantic portrait of the facialist and her flawless skin that she hung on the wall of her own treatment room.)
Though my mother forbade us from wearing makeup like blush and lipstick due to our young age, she did allow us to use foundation in high school to mask our pimples and scars. Soon, however, I learned makeup brought its own set of anxieties.
At school, I withdrew any time friends went in for a hug because I was terrified of leaving foundation on their clothes. Even today I'm embarrassed by old pictures of myself (as if band photos of me wearing ill-fitting satin vests weren't cringe-inducing enough) -- my face matte and flat from the foundation, and clearly a different shade of beige than my neck.
For years, the only person I talked with about my acne problem and my lack of confidence was my sister. We shared the same internal struggle, trying hard not to tangle our self-worth with how clear our skin was on a given day, and ultimately failing. It seemed like such a vain and trivial problem, but it had a profound influence on how I felt about myself and interacted with others. My insecurities were loaded and nuanced, and I never imagined myself comfortable enough to talk to anybody other than my sister about it.
Then I joined Reddit.
Finding camaraderie, anonymously
On Reddit, which bills itself as the front page of the internet, users anonymously post messages, and share images and videos, in forums called subreddits. As of January 2018, Reddit has more than 1.2 million subreddits on topics as serious as global politics and as completely random as the overlap of potato salad and John Cena.
While the overwhelming majority of threads are informative or innocuous, Reddit often makes headlines for its most toxic and controversial subreddits, and the 1 percent of users who attack each other online. Forums like r/The_Donald, r/kotakuInaction, r/jailbait and r/thefappening (the latter two were eventually shut down) are notoriously rife with misogynistic and/or racist posts, and users encourage doxxing, vigilante justice and revenge porn.
It was this reputation that made me reluctant to sign up for an account, which would allow me to subscribe to subreddits, comment and vote on posts. Instead, I lurked for years, mostly for adorable animal gifs and entertaining fodder at r/niceguys. But a few months ago I finally joined for work research and stumbled on r/AsianBeauty, a subreddit about "beauty brands, cosmetics and skincare from Asia, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, China, etc.," with over 300,000 subscribers.
The subreddit's founder, who goes by the username TheCakePie, created the subreddit with a fellow blogger friend. "We wanted to build a community especially for women that would help us all learn and share together," she says.
In addition to testing and reviewing beauty products, r/AsianBeauty, or AB, users detail their routines (sometimes using intricate spreadsheets), update others on their skin and crowdsource advice for specific issues including how to manage dark eye circles or oily hair. Both men and women are active on threads and though the subreddit is about beauty products made in Asia, it mostly caters to an English-speaking audience. Many of the subreddit's 14 moderators are from the US and Europe, with one mod from Indonesia.
I quickly discovered these random strangers on the internet had an impressive amount of information and knowledge. But what struck me most was how candidly users described their skin problems and how these made them feel, often in great detail. It's a candor I rarely observe in real life.
In one post that stuck with me, a college student described struggling with acne for 10 years. After a particularly bad breakout and "a bit of a meltdown," the Redditor joined AB, which led to a first ever appointment with a dermatologist. "When I got back to the car, I cried with relief … I've felt some hope when it comes to my skin," the user wrote. "I've felt like I can really do something about it now, and that maybe it will get better. Not just because I saw the dermatologist, but also because I've become one small part of the AB community here."
Because there's a fear of being stigmatized, speaking about sensitive topics in real life, even if it's just comparing the best pimple-popping treatments, isn't easy. It's the same reason those with certain medical conditions or mental health issues confide in anonymous online communities than in friends and families.
"People visit those forums to seek information on a health topic which may not be something they want to talk about with their colleagues, friends or co-workers for various personal and social reasons," says Sunny Jung Kim, assistant professor at the Department of Health Behavior and Policy of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine. "The sense of anonymity makes virtual users feel more comfortable and safe to disclose their concerns and seek information from others."
Helping yourself, helping others
For better or worse, sometimes what one sees or does online bleeds into the offline world. Slowly and unexpectedly, AB made me more comfortable to talk about my skincare concerns and routine to people in real life other than my sister. I have yet to post anything on the subreddit itself, but merely reading about so many strangers' day-to-day regimens led me to ask friends about products they use. We'd swap notes, and I'd give the general lowdown on my skin type and the particular issues I'm currently dealing with.
It's a small step, but 12-year-old me would never imagine her older self talking to anyone face-to-face about something that made her feel so dejected. The way AB members freely discuss skin issues normalized the topic for me so much that I realized if having flawless, effortlessly clear skin was the exception, who exactly was I helping by cloaking this issue in such guilt and embarrassment?
"I've always had skin problems … It wasn't something we ever really talked about in my house," AB moderator Weavesunlight says. "I think it can be really difficult to talk about skin." But, "nearly everyone can relate to having skin problems of some sort."
Social media, to be sure, can lead to an unhealthy dependency as people chase the rush of good feelings that comes with Facebook likes, Twitter retweets and, in the case of Reddit, upvotes.
But with a forum like AB, users aren't getting upvotes for random vacation photos or status updates about a new outfit. They're being recognized for how helpful their advice is or how informative their posts are. That, in turn, boosts their sense of self and belonging.
"It's empowering to be able to help other people," says Catalina Toma, an associate professor of communication science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "You're viewing yourself through other people's eyes. If you're the kind of person who helps others and have advice that people can benefit from … That can make people feel better about themselves."
It's a theory known as the helper therapy principle, and it aims to explain why everyday people go out of their way moderating online forums like those on Reddit or, say, edit a Wikipedia article.
"I feel like I can give back to a community that has helped me numerous times," says a moderator who goes by the username Ronrinesu. "It also feels great when you see so many people feeling good about themselves because r/AsianBeauty helped them out."
The serious side of beauty
It's not always just reviews of sunscreens and eye creams on AB, however. The subreddit also breaches wider social topics that can be controversial. This includes the lack of diversity in the beauty industry, consumerism, unrealistically high beauty standards, the Westernization (or not?!) of Asian beauty ideals and even disillusionment in the AB community altogether.
This isn't surprising given not only the open-ended nature of Reddit discussions, but also because the beauty and skincare industry is a multibillion dollar business. Its influence is vast and far-reaching in our everyday lives.
"Beauty is not trivial," says UC Berkeley gender and women's studies professor Meeta Rani Jha. "It's about economic power. Beauty is about value. It's also about the capital that you can have." Beauty can open doors to social and professional privileges, says Jha, and people aim to acquire those advantages to get ahead.
By carving out a space to negotiate and navigate what beauty means to them, AB users bring their own perspectives and backgrounds to each topic, while finding common ground. (Who could have guessed I'd feel more comfortable taking advice from people my age going through similar experiences than, say, former Proactiv spokesman and incredibly relatable rockstar and supermodel serial dater Adam Levine?)
"The skincare industry does not exist in a vacuum where these social issues don't exist," AB moderator Lifebby says. "I think it's great and perfectly healthy to ... keep in mind that these things exist and not turn a blind eye to it." In the end, Lifebby says, discussing such topics is "an indispensable part of the community."
Reddit was about the last place on Earth I thought I'd look to ruminate about these issues and get help with my personal insecurities. But learning what others have gone through and how they practice self-care made me empathize with these strangers. In turn, it made me empathize with preteen Lynn. She was too hard on herself frankly, and though it took a number of years, the shame she felt even talking about her acne has started chipping away.
I still don't have clear skin, and I don't imagine myself having it anytime soon. But if there's anything that'll make me feel even slightly more comfortable about that, the way r/AsianBeauty has, then here's my upvote.