For women, soft, smooth skin is high on our mile-long list of desirable physical traits (arguably just below a tiny waistline and long, shiny hair). I learned this in middle school, after I first started shaving my legs. Body lotion and shaving cream ads taught me that healthy skin was “touchable” skin—the kind that people would glide their fingers over, and say, “Wow, your skin is so soft,” a compliment validating a gal’s very existence. In order to be sexy, one’s skin had to be rose-petal smooth. It was either “Skintimate or not” (remember those commercials?). And at the age of 12, I quickly discovered that my particular skin was decidedly… not.
I have keratosis pilaris. It’s a scary-sounding skin condition, but it isn’t rare. In fact, KP plagues a staggering 40% of the population. The condition consists of little red bumps, which are most often found on people’s thighs and the backs of their arms. These bumps are made of dead skin cells that build up and thicken around the hair follicles (the same thing that causes acne). It’s rough and bumpy, and I’m cursed with having it not only in the usual places but on my calves and forearms, too. Let’s just say no one would ever cast my limbs in a shaving cream commercial. Le sigh.
I first noticed my KP in sixth grade, when my best friend’s big sister pointed it out. She thought it was razor burn (it does look very similar) and offered me a bottle of lotion to treat it. I hadn’t shaved, so I knew it couldn’t be that. I didn’t know what it was, but it didn’t matter. I figured this was just the way my skin looked, and I shrugged it off.
I didn’t start to feel self-conscious about my KP until the following year. When I was 13, I started dating my first boyfriend, Matt. (Well, “dating,” as in he’d carry my books to biology class and occupy my evenings with long chats over AOL Instant Messenger.)
One day, Matt decided to ditch his guy friends to sit with me at lunch. It was a romantic gesture, and his friends teased us for it. But Matt defended me, told them to shove off, and put his hand on my arm.
I probably wouldn’t even remember this day, if not for the thing that happened next. The second Matt’s palm landed on my forearm, he felt the rough bumps, recoiled, and said, “Whoa, your skin feels like sandpaper!”
I instantly flushed with embarrassment. Matt was a jerk for saying it, but he was right. My skin did feel like sandpaper. When you’re 13, humiliation like that really sticks with you. Even after Matt and I broke up (all of two weeks later), I wore long-sleeve shirts every day until high school.
A couple of years after the lunch incident, I discovered the magic of Google, and one of the first things I ever looked up was the phrase “red bumps all over body.” I perused a few websites and determined that I had KP (my first, but certainly not last, Internet self-diagnosis). After identifying my condition, I almost cried with relief. I wasn’t a medical anomaly—my sandpaper skin had a name.
Naturally, I looked up treatments and begged my mom to buy me a bottle of pricey KP lotion. When it arrived, I was ecstatic. But the formula burned my sensitive skin, and when it didn’t make my KP instantly disappear, I was distraught.
Because here’s the thing: There is no “cure” for KP. The condition is thought to be genetic, possibly hormonal, and usually goes away by your 30s or 40s. Until then, one can treat KP by physically scrubbing the surface of the skin, chemically exfoliating with glycolic or lactic acid, and moisturizing. Unfortunately, though, until it goes away on its own, there’s not much else you can do.
I continued to be so ashamed of my bumpy skin throughout high school that I didn’t allow boys to touch my arms or legs. (In hindsight, I realize this was probably for the best.) But what definitely wasn’t for the best is that my skin texture, and my lack of control over it, completely warped my self-worth. It convinced me that I would never be sexy to another person. Even after I became an adult and started dating my long-term boyfriend, KP remained one of my last unresolved body image issues. The thought of my partner running his hands over my legs only to be met with bumps and inflammation made me cringe.
I wish I had a neat, tidy ending to this story. I wish I could say I discovered some unexpected miracle that eradicated my KP for good. But today, at 24, I’m still rocking a bod covered in KP. But the difference is that now it doesn’t bother me anymore.
Today, I wear sleeveless shirts and shorts, and I don’t even blink when (consenting adults) touch my bumpy skin. I think the main difference between my attitude now and my attitude 10 years ago is that I know I’m not alone. When I was a teenager with nothing but a little Google access, “40%” felt like a theoretical number. I was so wrapped up in my own flaws that it didn’t occur to me that everyone has them.
Today, I’m open about my skin concerns; I talk about them with friends and experts. We swap stories and treatment recommendations. And more importantly, now I know that perfectly soft, commercial-ready skin is hardly the norm. Yes, my bumpy forearms shocked 13-year-old Matt—but that’s because we were kids, not because I was a freak. If someone makes a big deal out of my KP now, I know that they clearly just haven’t seen many female bodies in their lifetime. And that’s on them.
The irony of KP is that as you mature and become more confident about your body, the bumps simultaneously disappear. It’s almost like a magic trick: The older you get and the less you care, the more the bumps (and bad memories) fade away.
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