"Breakout Outbreak"           

by Katharine Jackson

Fear grips your heart. Terror claws at your stomach. You are so petrified you are unable to move. You stare at your reflection in the mirror. The girl in the mirror stares back. Trembling, your hand touches your face. You have been looking forward to, dreaming of this day for so long and now… this. This is a catastrophe, a calamity, a tragedy! How could this have happened? You rub your eyes in disbelief hoping, praying that it is an optical illusion. You cry out to the Gods "What did I do to deserve this? What vicious deed, what heinous act could I have committed to merit this awful fate?" You sigh a sigh of resignation <sigh>. You are beyond help. Nothing can save you now. It is the day of Prom, the pinnacle of your high school years, and you have… a zit.

    However, the actual problem "facing" acne sufferers (so to speak) is not the health hazard of a bacterial infection of the skin, but rather the prejudicial infection that plagues our society based on appearance. Alternately, the overreaction sometimes lies more with those tormented by acne. For example, what is virtually invisible to the rest of the world may seem to the victim a veritable Mount Vesuvius threatening to bury any semblance of a social life like the city of Pompeii. Hold on a second. It's only a zit. Those things are tiny! They can't be much more than a millimeter or two in diameter. How sick are we as human beings if we allow an iddy biddy bump to make or break our social confidence. How sad is it that we judge our entire sense of self-worth on the number of red dots that appear of their own free will on our faces. Okay, so maybe we all aren't quite that fanatic. May of you adults have gone through this and obviously lived to tell the story. But acne anxiety is a common phenomenon that runs wild through the streets of every American city from the tiny town of Podunk, Iowa to the booming megalopolis of New York City. Why do we let this miniscule object about the size of a crumb be a central focus of our adolescent years? Today, we will step back and examine the pimple, determine its physiology and psychology, and find out why we let it have such a huge impact on our lives.

    Although it seems that pimples appear only before important events: picture day, prom, weddings, dates, bar mitzvahs, their mysterious materialization has little to do with your personal calendar and more to do with the chemicals in your body produced by these events or the anticipation thereof. In truth, hormones cause acne. As we all know, a teenager's entire life is controlled by hormones, which is why we obsess about our appearance. Around puberty, sex hormones called androgens kick in. The cells in the skin follicles shed abnormally in flaky, clumpy sheets. The hormones also cause our skin glands to work overtime producing an oily substance called sebum. The excess sebum blocks the gland opening causing cells to build up and wham! I give you the pimple. Of course, acne presents itself in many different forms. You got your blackheads, your whiteheads, your pustules, your red spots, your papules, and if it gets worse you get cysts. There are actually over 50 types of acne, the most common of which is particularly prevalent among teens. However widespread, the thought of any type of blemish appearing on an otherwise perfect visage is absolutely horrifying to most adolescents. A thought tantamount to eternal social damnation, many a teen would consider a face full of pimples the ultimate sin, with a punishment that would strike fear into the hearts of many a cowering young adolescent. <Imitating judge> The United States Court of Dermatology will come to order. The defendant is found guilty of… Acne Vulgaris. He is sentenced to 5 years of public ridicule and 10 years of fear of social contact and dysmorphophobia: hatred of one's looks. It's not just hormones that cause acne. Anxiety and strong emotions have been known to cause or aggravate acne. Heredity also plays a big part. If your Dad's skin looked like the Rocky Mountains when he was in high school, you can expect to be a wee bit bumpy. If you are one of the poor unfortunate souls found guilty of acne, you are not alone. 85% of the United States population between the ages of 15 and 25 suffer from acne at some point in their lives. Outside of the fantastical realm of Hollywood, the stereotypical teenager has acne. Out of every 10 teenagers, 8 ˝ of us have to deal with unsightly blemishes. Therefore, we should either be looking at this as a serious risk to national health and security, or something so common it is barely worth mentioning. As for me, I'm a little more worried about that half person running around. 

    And yet, as the children suffer, so do the adults.  Parents and grandparents were once part of the 85% suffering from acne and must now relive the anxiety through their teenagers. Not only do they buy Clearasil and Oxy-10 by the truckload, they must remind their adolescent 300 times a day "It's not noticeable". Although teenagers make up the majority of individuals suffering from acne, there are a number of adults whose acne does not appear until middle age. 

    Just as there is no cure for AIDS or cancer, there is also no cure for acne. Many different treatments are available, but as with most medications, there are side effects. Sure, you can clear up a pimple here or there if you want to put up with dry, flaky skin, depression, increased sensitivity to the sun, and gastrointestinal problems such as vomiting and diarrhea. Am I the only one thinks that this might be a big waste of time, energy, and money? I would guess that the millions of adults who have gone through this would agree with me. But unfortunately, in the domain of high school, many have a deeply rooted prejudice against people with acne. A recent survey by the American Academy of Dermatology showed that 41% of teens consider individuals with acne to be less desirable. Is this not the epitome of superficiality when one is judged less on their appearance and more on what appears on their appearance? According to the same survey, 36% of girls say that acne makes them feel self-conscious and 28% of boys say they prefer to date partners without acne. According to Dr. Gail Robinson, past president of the American Counseling Association, "Many teenagers with acne have a negative self image, which can lead to withdrawl from friends and activities, inappropriate social behavior, and poor academic performance."

    For all the misconceptions in existence about people with acne, there are just as many untrue myths about the acne itself. One common theory is that the sun does not help clear up your acne. In fact, it makes it worse. Although many teens claim to have fewer breakouts when they have a tan, studies have shown that the UV rays harm the skin and many experience aggravated acne two to four weeks after prolonged exposure to the sun. 

    I'm sure that all of you have heard the most popular fallacy concerning pimples. No matter what your mother tells you, chocolate and fried foods do not cause acne. Despite what Mom says, the occasional Snickers bar isn't going to make your face clash with your favorite plaid shirt, for as we all know, plaid and polka dots do not match. Professor of dermatology, Dr. Donald Downing states "People have always had this impression that the fat you eat comes out of your skin. But the fat that makes pimples is different from the fat we eat in foods." Throughout the conservative days of the '40's and '50's dieticians told the public that fat in the diet caused acne. More recent studies have proven that greasy foods and chocolate do not cause pimples. In fact, Dr. James Leyden did a study in 1968 in which the participants were force-fed large amounts of chocolate and the results showed no effect on their acne. Now that's one experiment for which I would be more than happy to volunteer. Of course this doesn't mean that you should start scarfing french fries and Hershey bars like there's no tomorrow. Healthy skin requires a healthy diet. If every time you eat chocolate pudding, you notice an extreme outburst of red spots, you may want to switch to Jell-O.

    Yes, it's scary, yes it's big, yes it's ugly, but it's normal. In our society, those who have never experienced the joys of a pimple are in the extreme minority. If you have acne, don't sweat it. In fact, the more you get upset about it, the worse it gets.  Your options are limited and modern medicine can only do so much. Now it's up to you. Are you going let it run your life, or are you going to learn to live with it like most everyone else in the world? It's your decision. Just remember which one of you is bigger.  When you're guilty of acne, your sentence is whatever you make it.

    You wipe your tears away and walk into the bathroom.  Hmmm, with the lighting in here, Mt. Vesuvius looks more like a little hill. You face the mirror armed with your noncomedogenic concealer. A little dab here, a little touch there, and what do you know, your face looks as clear and smooth as still water. You are a survivor. You may be guilty of acne, but you've been pardoned, and now, you can take on the world.


For those interested in performing this speech in competition, go ahead!  Info that may be required:  this speech was written and first performed in 1998, and is published in the Ohio High School Speech League's Winning Orations 1999.