Indiana Wrigley is a Research and Development Assistant who is currently working in TV in the UK. Around her 21st birthday last year, Indiana experienced a severe case of cystic acne and during this particularly difficult month, she felt like she couldn’t leave the house. Frustrated by the situation, Indiana decided to post a photo of herself on her Instagram account. After seeing this photo, a friend of hers encouraged Indiana to take part in a photo shoot with Sophie Harris Taylor called “Epidermis” and the photos from this upcoming exhibition have since been featured in Refinery 29, The Guardian and i.D magazine.
Here, Indiana tells us all about her struggle with cystic acne, her motivation for posting about her skin on Instagram and everything in between.
System Akvile: How did you get started with posting skin related content on your Instagram?
Indiana: I think it all started with my cousin. I’ve got a 15 year old cousin and she’s just recently got into the whole Insta world and is always posting selfies, getting the right angles and all of that kind of stuff. So, because I saw her creating this alter ego for social media, I wanted to do something to help. I know how scrolling through your feed and you seeing all of these perfect women can affect you. There wasn’t anyone showing anything that was real. I use my pictures to be more transparent. I think everyone values transparency, it makes you more reliable, trustworthy and relatable as well.
Relatability is a huge thing. I can’t relate to a lot of the things I follow on Instagram unless they’re talking about mental health or health or being honest about how their days were. That’s when I get the most out of social media, when it has balance.
I started sharing skin related posts about 2 years ago, I had a huge cystic acne breakout while I was still at uni. I didn’t leave the house for around a month. It was my 21st birthday and my mum had organized a surprise dinner, so I had to see everybody. So I think after that, after being exposed in full-force with my face and all the cystic acne, I just chose to accept myself. I shared a photo of all my acne and everything because I’d just had enough of feeling like I’d never be able to cover it up enough. So I was like, you know what? Let’s just do it. I can’t be bothered to hide anymore.
It’s surprising how many people are worried about other people seeing their skin. When I was dating for example, I would never let them see me without makeup on for example. I’d literally go to sleep with my makeup on, which is so bad for your skin, but I was just so worried that they’d see what it was like and I didn’t have airbrushed skin. It was a long, ongoing battle and I just decided to accept it. I mean, we’ve all got stuff that we’re not happy with about our appearance.
SA: Did you always have cystic acne?
Indiana: I’ve always had acne prone skin, hormonal acne definitely. The cystic acne started when I was 18 and that was something different because it didn’t matter how much makeup I put on, my skin would just decide to react and it would become apparent that I had cystic acne. I had it for quite a while and I didn’t know what was happening.
SA: Did you go to a dermatologist? What did you do that helped you with your cystic acne?
Indiana: I went to the doctor when my skin first started flaring up and they put me on a waiting list to see a dermatologist. By the time I got to the appointment I’d already had to research everything already.
I read so much! I’d educated myself on everything to do with science and skincare to try to find out what it was I was lacking, whether it was supplements or something else.
There’s just so much online. It took quite a while to see a dermatologist so they offered me roaccutane. The thing is, though, I’ve had a few friends who have taken it and it’s worked for the majority but for some there were side effects, as in, they felt very depressed. I already felt quite depressed, especially with my skin being that way. So I thought to myself if I was already feeling bad, was it worth taking something that might risk me feeling more depressed? So I decided against it. They gave me antibiotics instead but they didn’t work and my doctor didn’t know what was wrong, so they did hormone tests to see if it was that. No one could really quite work out what it was.
I tried so many things, just so many things. So when I finally got to my dermatology appointment I took in my entire tote bag full of about, I kid you not, about 16 different products - cleansers, moisturizers, all different types of moisturizers, spot treatments, etc. I said to the dermatologist, I’ve got time with you right now, so can we go through all of these and you tell me if it’s a myth or a miracle product.
I just brought all the products out and I just asked him, is this marketing or is this actually gonna help me? Because I feel like there is just so much on the market that promises glowing skin and youthfulness and I think a lot of it is very superficial and doesn’t actually help you.
SA: So, what did your dermatologist say?
Indiana: I’m not sure he was very fond of me because I brought so many products with me. But he got annoyed or upset about the situation because it was clear that I was a 21 year old sitting in there and I’d clearly just been sold so much to fix my skin. I think he was really frustrated, as dermatologists often are, since they always come across people using all sorts of products and ordering stuff online, which is a big problem. Take for example these ‘medicines’ that you can easily order online to ‘fix your skin.’ They’re not tested or regulated. But we just think, ‘this is it, this is going to fix my skin,’ so we try it especially if we’re looking for help.
SA: Are you on a good path now in terms of skincare or are you looking for something more long-term?
Indiana: I’d say that once you’ve had some kind of severe acne, you’re always looking back in your head or worried that it’s going to come back. Like the other day I looked in the mirror at work and I saw the first sign of cystic acne that I used to get and I automatically went back to that place. It’s not a huge deal but working in TV and being young as well, I find it difficult, especially as acne is associated with teenagers so having adult acne really can lower your confidence.
SA: How does it make you feel when you think of your cystic acne coming back?
Indiana: It’s a panic-inducing thing. My God, I nearly teared up. It’s something I’m very conscious of it, even right now as I have a few spots coming up on my forehead, and I am still in the process of trying different things. I think if you’re acne prone, you’re always going to have that fear of it coming back. And it definitely will for me as my acne is hormone related and pollution isn’t doing us any favours either.
SA: Can tell us about how having acne has made you feel in the past?
Indiana: If I look back to what made me break out, before I posted that picture of myself, I was going through a really stressful time at uni, my social circle was having a tough time and I couldn’t sleep properly. My cortisol levels rocketed and it all came out in acne. I think it’s all connected.
But also, if you have acne it will undoubtedly affect your mental health because you have an image of yourself that you want to portray to the world and your body is letting you down. It’s so weird because your skin is really at the forefront, as it’s the first thing anyone sees of you.
People make huge judgements of you too. They think that because you have acne it’s because you don’t wash your face, or that you have a bad diet. There is a real stereotype that comes with acne, for example, when characters in films have acne they just look like they don’t wash. I think it needs to be viewed more as a health thing that it has been.
SA: So yes, tell us about the exhibition. How did you get involved?
Indiana: So I posted that photo on my 21st birthday of me with my hair scraped back with red raw acne. It was clear that I’d tried every sort of exfoliant and then my friend who studied art, was following the photographer Sophie Harris Taylor who had put out a casting call on Instagram for girls that have skin conditions and then she put me in contact with Sophie. I wasn’t sure I could go. I was so nervous to do a photo shoot, let alone with all that acne. But once I got there, Sophie was so nice and it was a massive confidence booster. Also, Louisa Northcote, the girl behind ‘freethepimple,’ and I are in the same photo exhibition. I’ve never met her but I would love to, she’s a force to be reckoned with. So that’s coming up in September.
SA: On the whole, was it an empowering or scary experience?
Indiana: So, Sophie put the photo of me in i.D magazine and it was a whole page. I had a copy and that was great, but it’s so different when it’s online. I was at my boyfriend’s house getting ready for dinner and I, very rudely checked Instagram and I saw that one of my friends had seen the photo of me in i.D magazine and that it had started getting a lot of traction online. There were a lot of comments and something like 40,000 likes, which was crazy for me, especially as I didn’t know the photo was coming out. I found it very scary. But there were people from all over the world offering a lot of support, I had 50 messages on Instagram young people, from mums, boys and girls to say thanks and that was really cool. I also had friends from school messaging me. Of course, there was a lot of more negative messages that said ‘this isn’t beauty’, so there clearly is a divide between those people who have had acne and those who haven’t and a lot of assumptions that need to be broken down. At least, that’s what I learned from it. It was scary but that’s what life’s about.
SA: If you could make a wish for the future for people with acne, what would it be?
Indiana: I’m thinking about the first time I had acne and how I stole makeup from my mum, and put concealer on. And I know a lot of guy friends who did that too. I just think, in your teenage years it’s such an awkward time, so I would encourage everyone to just know that it’s not you that’s imperfect. Your skin is totally normal. You’re not expected to look like Kylie Jenner, because Kylie Jenner doesn’t even look like Kylie Jenner.
I think calling out photo shop is really important. I think there needs to be an indication for every image that has been photoshopped. The effects are all around us, we all know someone who has been negatively affected by airbrushing and it’s not OK. It really does affect people. So I think advertisers, brands etc. should be more forthcoming about when images have been photoshopped. I think transparency needs to happen.
SA: Do you have a message for people dealing with acne in adulthood?
Indiana: I would say ‘you are not your skin, you’re so much more than that.’ If your skin is flaring up then that’s just an excuse to take some more time for you. Also, it’s temporary and there are ways to fix it. Boys don’t care, girls don’t care, it won’t stop you getting a job. It will not stop you having a successful relationship or having great friends or playing sport well. It won’t stop you. Yes, it’s difficult because of how it makes you feel, it might feel like a social disabler sometimes and it is hard, but just live your life and don’t let it hold you back.
Thank you so much, Indiana! If you want to see the other photos in the Epidermis photo exhibition by Sophie Harris Taylor, it will be at the print space gallery, London, from 6-13 September. She’s also going to be started a guest column with us in the next few weeks, so watch this space.