Society has come a long way when it comes to appreciating different body shapes and sizes in recent years, thanks in part to diverse communities on social media (a search for the #bodypositivity tag on Instagram brings up 6.5m results).
But can the same be said about showing different types of skin – skin with eczema, wrinkles, rosacea, birthmarks, pigmentation disorders, acne, moles, warts?
The short answer is no. But, it’s getting there.
The ‘skin positivity’ movement has been gaining pace in the last couple of years, with almost 130,000 hashtagged posts on Instagram at the time of writing.
One of its stars is Gothenburg-based Sofia Grahn (@isofiagrahn), a 26-year-old Health Promotion and Nutritional Science graduate with nearly 100,000 followers on Instagram – pretty impressive for someone who started her account a little over two years ago.
Grahn began suffering with acne as a teenager.
‘It didn’t bother me,’ she says from her apartment. ‘I was told it was normal, I would grow out of it. I was confident it would pass, and it did.’
But then in her early 20s, Grahn’s acne returned, this time a more serious cystic form, which would ‘stick around longer… I related it to being on birth control and the stress of going to university,’ she says.
It wasn’t until a few years later, in 2018, that Grahn began to really struggle with her skin.
‘I started to get persistent mild to severe acne,’ she says. ‘It affected my mental health in a way that it hadn’t done before. I saw a doctor who prescribed different topical creams and antibiotics. Eventually, a dermatologist offered me Roaccutane, which is a rough medication with a bunch of bad side effects.’
Indeed, according to the UK government body the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), Roaccutane (the brand name for isotretinoin) has been linked to depression, aggressive tendencies, anxiety, and changes in mood amongst some patients, and more rarely to suicidal tendencies and psychotic disorders.
In short, it’s a drug that’s prescribed as a last resort.
‘It affected my confidence and self-image,’ says Grahn. ‘I felt so lonely. I really needed some emotional support from someone in the same place as me, who could understand my feelings.’
Grahn says she started searching hashtags on Instagram and came across the skin positivity and acne love community online.
‘These were people who would share pictures of their skin up close and personal, raw and unedited,’ she tells us. ‘I felt compelled to create my own page. For my mental health and general wellbeing I wanted to reach out to people and talk to them; to document my skin condition and everything that went with that.’
And so Grahn started an Instagram account under a pseudonym based on the name of the medication she was taking at the time.
‘I didn’t want people I knew to know this girl with the skin condition was me. I was terrified of people seeing me without makeup,’ she explains. ‘I’d barely leave the house without high coverage foundation.
‘I had a personal Instagram account – followed by my family and my friends – full of selfies where my skin wasn’t showing. In some cases I’d use an app to smooth my skin in a picture.
‘Some people didn’t know I even had acne and I was pretty scared of people I knew finding out. So it was weird to start taking photos with the intention of capturing my skin up close.’
Nearly 100,000 followers later, she’s plainly struck a chord – but becoming a skin positivity influencer was the furthest thing from her mind.
‘I never knew the term “acne positive” was a thing in 2018,’ she says. ‘Like “you can like yourself with acne? What?” Skin conditions is where body acceptance ends – having “good skin” is still talked about a lot.’
The fact that skincare companies are making an effort to showcase models with unedited skin in adverts is a big step Grahn credits with helping to improve acceptance of people with skin conditions.
‘Often, commercials only show people with edited skin,’ she says. ‘It’s dishonest.’ While she has accepted a couple of partnerships with brands, the figurehead (who is currently working as a carer due to the pandemic) is at pains to stick to her beliefs.
‘Just because I have a large following, it doesn’t mean I will say just anything… Yes, it’s important to tend to your skin while having a skin condition, but I don’t want to put it out there that I – or people like me – need to be “fixed”,’ she notes.
Grahn has come a long way in terms of acceptance of herself, and recently changed the name of her Instagram account to her own – @isofiagrahn instead of the pseudonym she had been using since 2018.
‘I’m not on medication right now and rarely wear foundation,’ she says. ‘It’s been a process. In 2018, my acne dictated how I viewed myself.
‘Now, I just go about my life and my acne doesn’t hinder me. It feels pretty great.
‘I am Sofia. I like fashion and photography, yoga and hanging out with my family and friends.
‘And, I have acne. It is part of me, but it is not all of me.’
Sofia Grahn’s favourite skin positivity influencers
Lou Northcote, @freethepimple_ (26.7k followers)
‘Lou Northcote is another great acne positive girl and one of the first people I followed.’
Jeyza Gary, @lyricallydiverse (30.9k followers)
Jeyza is an amazing model who also has the dry skin condition ichthyosis.
Lex, @talontedlex (28.8k followers)
Lex is a rosacea and skin positivity campaigner.
Vlad, @scarryacne_with_v (5.5k followers)
While the acne positive space mostly consists of women, Vlad also speaks a lot about skin positivity.
Sari Alikhani, @tales.ofskincare (4.5k followers)
Sari Alikhani, who also has Guillian Barre Syndrome, talks acne, ageing and more.
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