Why healthy skin is beautiful skin-Musings of a NYC dermatologist

At Aglow Dermatology, our motto is “healthy skin is beautiful skin.”  What does this mean?

A patient recently asked me if it were “okay” that she were in my office to treat her acne.  Although her acne was not the worst, she had a number of red papules on her face.  She was concerned that she was over reacting by seeking treatment at all. ..that I might think she were vain.

Although acne is not a life threatening disease, and aside from the fact that it can be literally painful, some studies show that it causes more psychosocial distress than diabetes or high blood pressure.  Why is appearance so important to human beings?  Are we just being vain if a pimple bothers us?  Why do we sometimes behave as if beauty is a matter of life or death?  The answer is because sometimes it is.

A few years ago I read an amazing book that really heightened  my compassion.  It’s called Status Anxiety by Alain De Botton.  The take away message for me was that status and appearance come down to our fear of not being treated well.  Throughout human history being treated well has been a matter of life or death.  It might effect whether or not we would get to mate and have children, whether or not we would get access to resources needed to survive, or whether or not someone would try to physically attack or kill us.  Back in my college days I remember reading that women who described themselves as feminists were more likely to wear make up than women who did not.  Were they being hypocrites or did feminists just have a different relationship to attending to their appearance?  Was make up not oppression to them, but a tool?

One of the reasons we respond to beauty so much is that if gives us signals about other things.  We are, after all, social animals.  Our skin, hair and nails, say alot about our beauty, but also are unconscious windows  into our health status.  Are we fertile or already pregnant?  Do we have a disease?  Are we healthy enough or too old to defend ourselves or lead the group?  Are we malnourished?  Are we wealthy and a high status member of the group deserving of privileges?

How would you describe beautiful skin?  Usually people would answer that it is smooth, luminous and supple (a sign of youth and good nutrition), that it is evenly pigmented and not inflamed (i.e. without disease), and that there are no lesions or scars (indicating a possible problem or injury).  We are hard wired to react to distractions on the skin as part of our survival.  What we see on the surface may have a deeper meaning.  For humans healthy skin is beautiful skin.

This doesn’t mean that we we have to loose perspective about a pimple.

My patient came up with a funny analogy about why her acne bothers her.  She said, “it’s like having food in your teeth.”  No, it won’t kill you, but it certainly distracts people you are interacting with.

…And to change the subject from our status anxiety about our appearance to the status anxiety of working mothers,  check out my quote on abcnews.com in an article about questions working mothers don’t like to hear and what these question may mean to us:



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