Close up photo of myself, cropped. I'm staring off behind the camera and I have a drawing on my right cheek.

Performing beauty: Editing out my flaws.

I am a woman. A feminist, a fat activist and a healthy body image advocate. I’m also an artist and a blogger (I struggle to identify myself as a writer) with a pretty significant audience. There are things about me that you might know, picked up from what I explicitly tell you about myself or from what I blog about, but there are also things that I actively conceal.

My acts of omission include concealing where I live, my daily movements and my future plans, because I am a woman who has been stalked. I have hidden my street address in my domain registration (something I can not do if I purchase a domain unless I have a PO box.) You might think that’s normal and fair, but I think it’s kind of gross because I’ve done it to protect myself from some guy who assumes I am fair game because I post things on the internet. At any rate, that’s one of the steps I have taken on the internet to protect myself from the culture of violence against women.

I also use Photoshop to conceal my skin. You might be thinking, “whoa, way to change the subject on me” but the omission of my scars, blemishes and zits plays into the same culture of violence against women as my omission of my street address and my movements in “real life” (as if writing this blog and posting pictures of myself isn’t real life!) I am involved in so much discussion about the oppression of women and some things are easy to draw a line under and say THAT’S BAD but others fall into a grey zone. It’s hard for me to commit to showing people my actual skin, even though I know it portrays me as someone who benefits from the privilege of smooth(er) skin. Some feminists may say I betray myself and other people who suffer from acne, and you know that just makes me feel doubly shit about myself. Every time I use the Heal tool in Photoshop I ask myself if I am playing into the systematic oppression of women, but then I ask myself what would happen if I posted unedited photographs of myself to the internet. Sure, there are lots of photos that do not need editing (by my personal standards) but many do, and I want to be transparent about this.

When you have acne you are everybody’s science experiment. If it is on your exposed skin, and for so many sufferers acne is pretty much front and centre, you are betrayed as someone who seemingly can not take care of themselves. People in their misguided kindness offer unsolicited advice because they just want you to feel better, to look better, so people don’t think poorly of you. The most honest punters tell you that you’re ugly, that you have a pizza face and that you are dirty and undeserving of love and affection. Sometimes professional opportunities are curtailed because you have a skin condition, because the person hiring subscribes to cultural messages about people with acne (the overriding message is that acne sufferers don’t have basic levels of hygiene, which is complete bullshit.) All of these people, the advice-givers and the haters, have been taught that someone with acned skin is not beautiful and people who aren’t beautiful must work very very hard to be beautiful and to avoid the taunts, and to be a normal human being with normal chances for love and employment and basic decent treatment. The onus is always on the ugly person to make up for not conforming. As someone who experiences this daily I can’t tell you how much of a stinking pile of shit this is, I hope you understand. I am not writing this for advice, Maude knows I have received a lot of it. Most of this advice was unrequested and useless, all of it hurt me. If you’ve read this paragraph you might catch yourself falling into the trap of the Nice Person Giving Unsolicited Advice – please, stop yourself.

Collage of two photos - the same photo of me, close up and looking just beyond the camera. The left photo is unedited and transparent words hover over it like "Colour balance, under eye bags, pock marks, uneven texture, cystic acne, scarring". The photo on the right has been retouched and shows me with smoother skin and kinder colouring. Large transparent text at the top says "ERASED".

As a graphic designer, I have retouching skills that most others do not, and I have used those skills for 10 years to edit out spots and blotches that people find so offensive. I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I find them offensive too. My critical lens is focused squarely on myself, however, and I find it curious that I am rarely aware of other people’s skin when mine bothers me so much. I do offer empathy, not advice, in conversations about acne and other skin conditions. I don’t want to make fellow sufferers sadder than they already might be! But yes, upon looking at photographs of myself I take a selected few into Photoshop and edit out the things I don’t like. My editing does not morph my large belly into a more acceptable silhouette, and I do not minimise my double chin. My favourite and most useful tool is Heal, and with it I turn scars and blemishes into a smoother and more acceptable surface while removing any shine from my naturally oily skin. I ask myself, “Am I editing out me, my essential Natalieness? Is this skin condition as part of me as the fatness I refuse to Liquify into submission?” Objectively speaking my health, including my acne, is part of me and therefore my zits have to be part of my Natalieness. I feel like I’m lying not just to you but to me. I use the Heal tool regardless of being cognisant of this.

I edit myself for a few reasons, to minimise interactions with people who might give advice; to avoid nasty comments; to feel a bit more normal; and to see what it might be like if I looked just a tiny bit different. To expect those of us with less ideal bodies, hell any minority group, to expose ourselves can be a very negative thing and it’s fraught with issues. Many plus size bloggers experience abuse just because they post photos of their bodies on the internet. Sex bloggers often obscure their identities because we live in a world where sex positivity is maligned; these writers can and have faced absolutely abhorrent treatment from friends, family and workplaces. People with acne, like me, use makeup and Photoshop to embody at least a small degree of normalcy and to avoid hurtful reactions. I don’t think a person’s willingness to edit perceived flaws/ identifiers of minority embodiment out is a betrayal of feminism, in fact it is a sign that our culture is pretty much screwed and all of us, the embodied and the advice givers and the haters, are living within this royally effed up culture.

[Transcript for Killing Us Softly 4 by Jean Kilbourne]

So, like Jean Kilbourne says, this culture of attitudes towards beauty needs to be changed. I will still edit out most of my zits. Not all of them. You’ll still see a degree of imperfection because my standards differ greatly from yours, and most people will see photos of me and see my fat body first and perceive that as my greatest flaw. The question of who exacts erasure is key, because if that person or entity is one with cultural power – that’s when we can identify problems inherent in ideal-making. For instance, when a retouching artist working for a men’s magazine edits out whole portions of a model’s body, even if the model has given permission (is that permission implicit in posing for a photograph?) It’s very helpful to question the magazine’s motivations in this situation because there are layers of cultural power at work and all of them have a woman’s body, and the standard of ideal feminine beauty, in the crossfire. I do not have the reach of a magazine and I am retouching images of myself, but I do think this is an issue that I have to discuss. As a person with privilege (middle class, white, mostly able-bodied appearing) and a platform I want to cast my critical lens not on myself, but on the system of power that wants me to criticise myself and other people, and to participate in and conform to norm-making. A lot of the time I have an explicit awareness of my inability to embody beauty, but this culture I live in wants me to perform it to the best of my ability… just to fit in.


  1. Interesting. I have good skin and occasionally get asked for advice – which always seems weird to me because it’s not something I did myself (other than looking after it but not going in the sun, drinking water etc) but genetics. If someone followed the same skin care routine as I do, they aren’t going to get the same skin so why even ask?

    We all edit ourselves for so many reasons. I guess even deciding to post one photo from a better angle over another that isn’t so good is a way of editing how ppl see us online. It never ends.

  2. As a fellow designer and a photographer (and woman) I don’t think editing a zit is any different than wearing concealer to minimize it. But it is more effective! In photographing others it was always hard to decide what to keep and what to brush out until I heard this advice: if it is a permanent feature that gives character to the person’s features an makes up a part of their physical identity, leave it. Acne does not a person make. It’s transient, unintended and it is not “you”. No one has ever asked to have their acne put back.

  3. I think you ARE a WRITER – I really enjoyed your thights on this topic and how you expressed them.

  4. This is an incredible post. I think it is very brave of you to write so honestly – and say things that many others struggle with but don’t know how to tackle. I have had bad skin since age 12 and I’m 33 now. I appreciate the post here more than I can say.

  5. My critical lens is focused squarely on myself, however, and I find it curious that I am rarely aware of other people’s skin when mine bothers me so much.

    I’ve seen a lot of fat activists write about how much easier it was to love other fat bodies than to love their own, and I found the same thing. I don’t have any skin problems myself (despite having PCOS, strangely enough) but I can see how that dissonance between “inherent part of me” and “blemish on me” is in the same vein. It’s complicated and disturbing. I have a big surgical scar on my neck, and I don’t hide it IRL, but I think I would feel uncomfortable with it being prominent in a photo. I can’t even think why that would be different. Maybe because in a photo I’m just presenting one aspect of myself, and in person, there’s much more to me?

  6. Natalie – you always write such thought provoking blog entries. Thank you.
    I have a skin condition. Ichthyosis form erythroderma. It means scaly red skin.
    I can identify with this part of your blog entry:
    ‘People in their misguided kindness offer unsolicited advice because they just want you to feel better, to look better, so people don’t think poorly of you. The most honest punters tell you that you’re ugly, that you have a pizza face and that you are dirty and undeserving of love and affection.’
    Every day I am judged on my appearance. It’s difficult. Really tough. But I keep going.
    I have never edited my appearance online. There was one blog entry where I was brave enough to publish a picture of what I look like at my worst – with facial infection. I say brave because on days when I have face infections, I don’t want to look at myself in the mirror, or look at anyone in the eye, let alone show the whole world. I chose to show half of my face. My doctor freaked out about me posting this picture. I was hesitant to post a whole picture of my face because I feared I’d end up on one of those ‘freak show’ websites. But even just posting half of my face, I raised awareness of what it is like to live with my chronic illness. Here is the blog entry I refer to, if you’re interested:
    I have never edited my appearance because this is who I am. In real life and online.

  7. I love this. It is an important topic and I have thoughts JUST like this. Honestly think this is a refreshing discussion on this! I have the debate of makeup, and whether as a body image advocate I am bad for saying I love makeup, I feel I dont have to explain this and dont think it makes me a bad advocate. I have struggled with acne for YEARS and had some of the most extreme of insecurity at being different. Kudos for you for sharing your words and voice in this topic.

  8. Oh and another thing – rather a tangent: on my site underbellie I do film reviews and I have been pondering writing a brief article of how many male actors can have pockmarks/cystic acne scars and not only are featured in important roles (and not just “sinister” ones although often that’s true) but often as heroic and/or romantic leads. I could think of about ten of them right off-hand.

    For some time I couldn’t think of any female actors that had obvious skin scarring or rough skin, especially that were potrayed as leads or romantic heroes. My mom suggested Ellen Barkin and I remembered Camryn Manheim (both actresses I’ve enjoyed BTW) and of course they hardly have the scarification or rough skin that most the men I could think of have. It was so interesting and sad to me to consider the double-standard.

    I know this might seem out of left field but… the discussion and images of women with less-than-flawless skin resonates with me on a few levels.

  9. I have never edited my appearance online for the same reasons you speak of.

    Thank you so much for sharing those posts. I’m sorry you have to experience people weighing in in what are probably almost categorically non-helpful ways.

  10. Thanks for this one. I’m new to blogging (well, new to the sort that includes pictures of myself regularly) and I have always had what is, for me, problem skin — acne and acne-scarring on my face, as well eczema, along with what I’m fairly certain is keratosis pilaris, and psoriasis on other parts of my body and scalp (I don’t know for sure because although I’ve had quite bad skin conditions for a long time–in some form or another since childhood–I’ve never seen a dermatologist). I have sebaceous cysts (again, this is self-diagnosis, but it’s the best I’ve got at the moment) on my scalp, but those at least are only noticeable to me. I was told my whole life that all of this was my fault, basically — my scalp was flaky because I showered at night (I don’t know, I still don’t get that one), I ate poorly, I didn’t wash my face enough, I wore my hair in my face and made it greasy (etc etc etc), and then of course as you’ve mentioned, I just got tons of “advice” that made me feel worse than better… especially since it always failed to remedy the situation, which made me feel like I was just simply not doing something right, or that I somehow “deserved” the discomfort. While being fat in a culture that loathes fatness has certainly led to feelings about and actions toward my body that were outright harmful, having skin problems did too. I remember applying rubbing alcohol straight to my face over and over again as a teenager, and poking deep zits with needles out of desperation… it was bad stuff. Anyway, this was a great post and I think lots more than me have and will find it helpful.

  11. Thank you. I’ve never met anyone other woman who was fat and had cystic acne. I have always thought of it as my ‘double whammy’. To be fat or to have acne is one thing, but to be afflicted with both is the modern day equivalent of a pox-ridden Dickensian beggar. Mainly, because both fat and acne are two conditions which cannot truly be hidden from the viewer’s gaze, and unlike disability, are considered to be the fault of the person experiencing them.

  12. You were the first FA blogger that I ever read, and you inspired a massive change in me. The thought provoking way that you write continues to inspire me and also challenge me and I effing love it. I love the way you expose all of those inner little workings of what is going on in your brain, and encourage me to think through things. You be a brave lady. x

  13. Natalie, Thank you yet again for writing what I am thinking and then taking it a bit further. I don’t think I could even put close up pictures of my face on my blog. But this issue really is just another element of body politics. I feel as I am a really bad person for having acne and especially because of my age – I’m far too old for it!! However I did give up trying to use make up to cover things up, because really it never works and you end up looking worse.
    I feel so ‘at home’ reading things like this from you and other bloggers – its such a relief to see myself mirrored in other people.


  14. I feel exactly the same way you do. I feel like any body editing I’ve done, in person or to representations of me, is done to make my experience easier. It’s not us editing ourselves that is the problem, it’s the culture that sets such an absurd standard and requires us to edit as a survival skill that is.

    For the record, I think the most obvious difference between the two photos is the white balance, and that has more to do with making a more _accurate_ image than anything else (our eyes automatically adjust to incandescent or tungsten lighting, it always appears unnaturally yellow or red on camera, so we edit that to preserve naturalism). Our own “critical lens”, as you say, is nearly always more critical than those of most reasonable people viewing us, at least that’s been my experience.

    I have deep “tear troughs”, which from a very young age have made me look like I have deep under eyebags in certain lighting. I stopped editing them out awhile ago, because I dunno, That’s how I look. It isn’t even something somewhat secondary, such as a scar or blemish, it’s part of the very skeletal structure of my body. I have more trouble leaving my burgeoning between-eyebrow scowl wrinkle which I feel lends my face a really unpleasant, mean look.

    For some reason, I only have very mild acne now, but I have had deep cystic pimples and severe “acne vulgaris” in the past and I had a really, really hard time even leaving the house. I would cry or have panic attacks if I had to. When my self esteem gets this poor now, I try and realize that I personally see people day in day out with mild or moderate or severe “flaws”, and I often barely even notice it. Like it doesn’t register. I’m not trying to apply some silly “I only see people’s true nature!!!!” rhetoric here… Obviously there are certain severe body things that are immediately apparent… but I just don’t really notice most acne or wrinkles or eyebags or whatever else. Like, my boyfriend has acne & pretty serious acne scarring and it’s just never been something that I picked up on, even when we first met and were merely workplace acquaintances. I wish I could view myself with the same lens, but it just doesn’t work and that’s probably self preservation on some level.

  15. Thank you so much for writing this post. I have much worse skin at thirty than I did at fifteen, and it’s the one thing I have the hardest time to accept. I don’t mind my fat or the bags under my eyes or any of the things that bothered me when I was younger, but my skin! I hate that I am so bothered by it, but I can’t help it.

    I’m trying to come to terms of it by posting little YouTube-clips of myself talking, because you can’t (well, I can’t, I’m new to this and don’t know much about editing) fix yourself up as much in video as on pics. I wear make-up to cover the worst, of course, but it’s still quite visible.

    So yeah. First clip going up in the next few days. I’m very nervous.

  16. Well, now you know three: I have cystic acne *and* I’m fat. :)

    I have to do a lot of crap just to keep it under control–a cream, a daily pill, a facial wash, AND I’ve had two skin peels. The reason I can afford to do all this is because my mom decided to fund it all as a birthday present one year. She said that she tried to think of one of the most helpful things she could do to help me in my future life and she decided that getting rid of my acne would help me the most socially and career-wise. Which, even though I accepted the gift, struck me as incredibly sad. I didn’t enjoy having it on my face, but it had never dawned on me that it *defined* me.

    Mom’s always put much more stock in appearance than I have, and sometimes her worldview strikes fear into me (I will never get anything in life, no matter how hard I try!), even though we’re both fairly average-looking people with jobs and romantic interests. I hate taking pills, but I usually take them every day, and I usually don’t put on the cream (I guess as some kind of rebellion. Which does not seem to bright or grateful nonetheless.)

    Natalie, I had no idea your photos were ‘shopped until now. (I guess I don’t have the eye for it.) The changes you are making are much more subtle than I’ve seen in say, the before and after pics of Madonna on Jezebel!

  17. I am SO TIRED and having trouble forming coherent thoughts right now. I just spent hours at a wedding, involved in the bridal party, surrounded by bridesmaids and a bride that need all their flaws concealed. I get it though. While I’ve never had skin issues, so I can’t relate to that, I have trouble with photographs of myself, because I always want to edit out my natural bags and dark circles. And I always make sure my teeth never show in photos, unless someone catches me unaware. If I could edit that, I would. I am so self-conscious about both things.

    Because these things aren’t “beautiful” and because I want to present that “feminine” side, I conceal them. I wish I was confident enough in myself to leave them as they are. While believing our flaws are what makes us who we are, I still have so much trouble accepting them on myself.

  18. This is really thought provoking, and I think a similar rhetoric can be applied to so many things. For example, I think probably 70% of people’s skin is shiny, but that’s always edited out (as you note). I used to work in a portrait studio, and everyone wanted flawless skin edited in. Even people with already flawless skin wanted more flawless skin. Photoshop can be such an amazing tool, but it’s also such a tool of psychological torture, too. It’s so easy to forget how edited everything is, to want to look edited in real life.

  19. i’ve been coming back and forth to this post since early this morning, because i couldn’t decided what to say. i think the reason my personal blog failed was my inability to perform beauty in a way i found acceptable for public consumption. i would take 20 photos and see two i considered usable. although i don’t have exactly the same skin problems as you, i can definitely relate. i’ve got scarring on my chin (and instead of being offered drive by beauty tips, no one can help you because “ethnic skin” is SO hard to care for) and excess facial hair, in addition to keloid scars all over the rest of my body. thank you for being so transparent and sharing your perspective about the authority to edit what the public sees.

    even though it’s not the point of this post, i think you’re gorgeous. inside and out. can i move over there and become your pal?

  20. I’m fat and disabled, and I can assure you that people get blamed for disabilities, too! Not just for having them but for not “trying harder” to overcome them. It shouldn’t be about assigning blame or a hierarchy of suffering – everyone deserves to be treated with respect and dignity.

  21. Gosh yes, I think you’ve crystallised something, by saying this. I have chronic fatigue syndrome, & there are those who consider it my failing that I got it, and those who wouldn’t blame me for getting it but consider it my failing that I STILL have it. And god help me if I don’t attempt to be the brave little disabled person, and scowl & make no secret of the fact that I have a Bad Attitude Today.

    Sorry for hijacking your comments thread Natalie, though I guess all these attitudes intertwine. Thankyou for being so honest – I haven’t read this level of honesty before on these issues and it resonates with me to a discomfiting degree. :)

  22. It’s kind of sad that the only way it’s acceptable to our insecure & demanding patriarchy , to show “ugly” or “butch” women (including behaviour) on telly is if they are shown as social outcasts or evil in some way. To my tastes, “ugly” or “butch” looking/behaving women on telly are often far more sexy RROWR :D

  23. Agreed – I see a lot of the ‘could try harder’ attitude pushed towards people with disabilities.
    I get told off as though my illness is my own fault – people assume I’ve ‘been stupid and gotten myself sunburnt’.

  24. A very thought-provoking and moving post, Natalie. As a sufferer of PCOS, I can empathise completely with what you have written here, and Jean Kilbourne’s discussion of the issue particularly resonated with me. I have very clear memories of sitting in my bedroom one day as a 15 year old, staring at my acne-ridden face in the mirror and sobbing my heart out over what I perceived as my ‘freakish’ appearance. This incident was directly related to reading my sister’s issue of Cosmo, or Cleo (one of those mags anyway), and staring for hours at the models’ flawless physiques and, in particular, their airbrushed visages (of course at the time, I had no idea what airbrushing or photoshopping even was) and feeling that I could never, ever measure up to the perfection. Now, as a thirty-five year old, I continue to despair whenever I look in the mirror due to cystic acne, combined with terrible scarring around my chin and neck from continual plucking of excess facial hair (for me this is by far the most awful and extreme of the cosmetic symptoms of PCOS). I too am judged by others on my appearance. The worst thing, and the part that bothers me the most is when people stare at my chin and neck while they are talking to me. I’m sure they don’t realise that I can see the angle of their gaze, but when it happens everywhere I go, after a while I just want to ask people to look me in the eye when they speak to me. I truly wish that I could edit out my flaws in real life, and I think the need to be accepted as ‘normal’ by others will mean that I will continue to wear make-up in an attempt to cover the blemishes and scarring as much as I can. I really dislike the way some of my ‘friends’ have commented to me that they have never seen me as an adult without make-up on my face, and I know they say this not out of a desire for me to feel comfortable in my natural state, but because some of them are curious to see how bad my skin really is without the minor correction that make-up provides. Your post has provided much food for thought, but in the end, I really think that you using the ‘heal’ tool on Photoshop is no different to someone choosing to wear sleeves instead of going sleeveless, because they feel more comfortable without their upper arms on display, and certainly no different to me choosing to appear in public only when I have spent considerable time and effort applying make-up to hide my scars.

  25. I do the same thing. I don’t feel like I’m being dishonest. Some times picture taking can be time consuming. It’s easier for me to do a zit touch up than wait a week for it to “heal” on it’s own. I think touch ups like lighting etc are modest compared to magazines with totally alter a body’s form.

  26. You shouldn’t hesitate to consider yourself a ‘writer’, you have an incredible writing style, anything you write about I find really fascinating, often inspiring and you write with such candour and humour.

    Great post btw. I don’t suffer from skin problems myself and it’s enlightening to read about someone’s experience with it. I know that when kids suffered in school from acne problems, they were always targeted by the bullies and it it makes me so sad to think that they’re being vilified for something that they have no control over; it must be hard enough dealing with the condition, let alone deal with other people’s bullshit.

    Also, reading about your experience as a grown woman with it is a whole different matter. I have a friend who has eczema issues and I was surprised to hear that there’s quite a lot of emotional stress and shame associated with that as well. I understand the urge to touch up photographs, I often did as a teen when I had breakouts, but at the same time, I don’t find acne, or anything similar, to be confronting or distasteful – to me it just adds character, or is part of that person’s character. Which I guess is something that the acne-prone struggle with, the fact that it is a part of them that they can’t really escape when beauty standards insist otherwise. And I guess, in a way, I shouldn’t really comment on the matter (?) as I don’t have cystic acne, but it’s just my perspective.

    It’s nuts what society deems to be socially acceptable. To think that people with acne or eczema (and a myriad of other issues) feel the need to hide something that really shouldn’t be. I hope my comment makes sense and doesn’t offend, just trying to convey what I think and sometimes it reads wrong.

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  28. A truly touching post – thank you so much for sharing this vulnerability with us and trusting that we’ll hold it and see you as you are. It makes me so sad and uncomfortable when people feel they can offer advice to someone they find “unacceptable”. I’m glad you’re addressing this. I hope someday all of your Natalieness is as loved by you as it us by us. <3

  29. This is an excellent post which I can really identify with, especially this part:

    ‘People in their misguided kindness offer unsolicited advice because they just want you to feel better, to look better, so people don’t think poorly of you. The most honest punters tell you that you’re ugly, that you have a pizza face and that you are dirty and undeserving of love and affection.’


    Thanks to (a very expensive version of) the Pill and some other meds I no longer have the skin problems that pretty much defined my entire adolescence and early adulthood and I am thankful for that but at the same time it’s a little bit sad to think that because of the above, I resort to paying insane amounts of money for something that does other less visible but still uncomfortable things to my body (like making my boobs get bigger and ache and breakthrough bleeding and bla bla bla)… for the sake of having smooth skin because that’s what society has decided is OK. I mean I never liked having acne and I’ll probably never stop taking the meds because I don’t want it to come back, but still.

    Food for thought. I really enjoy your blog btw.

  30. I think that you are an inspiration.You hear so much in the media that thin is good and fat is bad. And I think that this is a killer of body image and self esteem. Sometimes I ask myself, why dont they just leave us alone? Have they not got anything useful and meaningful to do with their lives? I am overweight too and Ive been trying to lose weight for years when I finally just gave up. As a result of that Ive learnt to love myself and who I am. And you have been a part of that transforming process. Thank you very much and keep doing what youre doing! :)

  31. Thank you for this post, it was so honest and thought provoking. Reading your blog has made me think differently about my own plus sized body. You rock! xo

  32. Thank you for this post, it was so honest and thought provoking. Reading your blog has made me think differently about my own plus sized body. You rock! xo

  33. Holy crap, you’re cute!

    The only difference I can tell in those photos is the color balance. We all see our own flaws like crazy; yours don’t even register to me, though.

    I’m trying oh so hard to accept my round tummy and double chin. (I am also fat.) They’re certainly not going to go away as I get older!

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