I have a celebrity crush: Jemima Kirke. Once when I lived in Brooklyn, I found myself practising yoga beside the glamorous actor of Girls and Sex Education fame. She was heavily pregnant and still made the poses look easy. Since then I have imagined we have a special connection. We’ve done warrior two side by side!
When Kirke joined Instagram a few years ago, I discovered we shared more than a yoga class. We both suffer from eczema, a chronic skin condition that nobody, including dermatologists and allergists, fully understands. In the candid photos Kirke shares, it is impossible to ignore the patches of flared, recently scratched skin on her wrists and palms. It is exactly how my hands have looked, on and off, since I was 20.
Of course, when Kirke models for brands like Chanel, her affliction is covered up. Celebrities, in general, might post on social media about their Botox injections, boutique facials, or favourite retinol serums – but not their atopic dermatitis. Makeup, highly controlled lighting and post-production photo editing all prop up the falsehood of a perfect complexion.
In Australia, by one count about 10% of the population lives with eczema, and the proportion is even higher in other countries. How many more adults out there live with acne, or redness, or a generally imperfect epidermis? It’s hard to know because we rarely see those people openly sharing their experiences on social media. All I had was Jemima.
Various treatments and tactics have made my 18 years of living with eczema sufferable: steroid creams, gloves, balms. I’ve often felt like a freak, and very lonely in my ailment. It was possible to hide my hands in photos or shield them from onlookers in social settings. Nevertheless, I was occasionally an emotional wreck during flare-ups.
Then, in October 2021 my eczema worsened. My face started feeling itchy. I awoke with my eyes swollen nearly shut, and inflammation all over my chin and cheeks. It was no longer possible to hide my skin problem.
It went away, then came back with a vengeance, and no observable pattern – not diet, not weather. I checked Instagram; Kirke was still flaunting her red wrists, and once again I felt solidarity with this glamorous actor who didn’t know I existed. We both had eczema on a new place – the lips. Painful, scaly and visible to the world, there it was. This new face eczema wasn’t plaguing only me. I felt less alone.
I wondered what I could find on Reddit. On the r/eczema forum, nearly 60,000 users give or seek advice (“I learned to take warm showers and it has helped”; “Has anyone tried cutting out dairy?”), pose questions (“Is this eczema or psoriasis?”, often accompanied by a photo), and post rants.
It’s all a crapshoot in terms of solving eczema. The causes are a medical mystery, and the proposed treatments can be contradictory. But within Reddit, I found a place for people living with eczema to voice our long-held frustrations.
We could bring up theories about our skin without being laughed at. We could suggest approaches to handwashing and recommend fabrics that seemed to lessen flare-ups. I found myself logging into Reddit on nights when my chin was begging to be scratched, relying on my fellow anonymous chronic skin condition victims around the world to keep my hands occupied.
Then, I found #eczema TikTok, where people openly share photos that show their skin worsening or improving, without shame. They discuss the measures they’ve taken to mitigate the symptoms and rate products. I found this world, like Reddit, very reassuring, although I did notice plenty of misinformation mixed in with the shared experiences.
Other famous women, besides my pal Jemima, are coming forward about their eczema, including singer Jessica Simpson, and actors Kerry Washington and Elle Fanning. It helps dispel the notion that perfect skin is always realistic. I hope that more celebrities with skin conditions chime in.
Given the many environmental factors and aspects of modern life that make it likely our epidermis could be compromised (for instance, through “prolonged exposure to pollution”), the expectation that we all have glowing, clear complexions is as unrealistic as beauty product marketing is all pervasive. As beauty journalist Jessica DeFino points out, the tyranny of trendy beauty products can be twofold: not only do they often fail to deliver results, they also give false hope.
And even if good skin was within our control (which it isn’t), it would be pretty unreasonable if expensive serums were the only way to protect one of our vital organs.
Finding others who suffer from eczema isn’t a cure, but it does relieve the psychological stress of my chronic condition. Knowing I’m not alone, and that there’s a community out there, keeps me going on days when I just don’t have an explanation for my latest flare-up. I’ve found that keeping an eczema diary, too, helps me process the emotional rollercoaster.
Talking to others and tracking my symptoms helps me refocus the blame away from myself. They reduce my shame about my skin.
It’s not perfect, but so what? Neither is the world, and our skin reflects that.