Millennial blemishes: How skin realism in shows like The Bisexual affects modern audiences

A new trend among celebrities for “pimple positivity” is reflected in a rare but growing glimpse of onscreen blemishes.

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East London flat, early hours. A dimly-lit house party is full of dismissive-looking hipsters sombrely taking drugs and lounging on each other. In the bathroom, the atmosphere is a little more upbeat. Leila, the main character in Channel 4’s comedy The Bisexual, is having sex with a man for the first time.

It’s one of the many gutsily realistic sex scenes that has caught the affection of British millennials. And as Leila develops a short-lived relationship with her new lover, an impish blue-haired bloke called Jon-Criss, their daylight trysts reveal something else compelling about the show’s aesthetic: real skin.

All the characters’ blemishes, spots, stubble, wrinkles, sweat and oil are visible to the viewer throughout the six episodes.

And it was a conscious decision. Director, co-writer and star Desiree Akhavan (who plays Leila) tells me she specifically discussed skin with Lisa Mustafa, the head of hair and make-up on the show, pre-production.

“I was very clear that I didn’t want everyone’s skin to look airbrushed,” Akhavan tells me over the phone. “I wanted to feel people’s skin breathe. It really bothers me when people have perfect skin on film and television; I find it really distracting. Because it’s not realistic. I think you make something to have people lose themselves in it, and lose themselves in the characters, and part of that is physical flaws.”

Describing how her team was “looking for naturalism in every stage of production”, Akhavan points out that “everyone has skin issues… If it’s not blemishes, it’s scars, it’s wrinkles, it’s something”.

“When you’re having sex with someone if you’re intimate with them and you know them well and it’s not just the first time, you probably don’t have make-up on,” she adds. “To me, for that to go takes away the eroticism of it. It’s the flaws and details that make it sexy, weirdly enough.”

Akhavan tells me she and her co-writer, Cecilia Frugiuele – who was also the producer on her first two films Appropriate Behavior and The Miseducation of Cameron Post – talk a lot about “showing the texture of people’s skin” in their productions.

And they’re not alone. A recent shift in pockets of the film and television world has seen “skin realism” tentatively take hold as an aesthetic. Akhavan herself calls it “a design element” of her work.

Earlier this year, the director Greta Gerwig asked the lead actor of her coming-of-age film Ladybird not to cover up her spots for the role. The 23-year-old actor Saoirse Ronan has since spoken positively about her acne in multiple interviews, saying she developed it at the age of 21 and doesn’t feel “insecure or self-conscious” about it: “I thought it was a really good opportunity to let a teenager’s face in a movie actually look like a teenager’s face in real life,” she told Vanity Fair.

“I don’t think that’s something you get to see much,” she said in another interview, with Racked. “Growing up, a lot of the teenage girls I saw in movies and TV shows were played by these fully formed 30-year-olds with great skin. I hope it helps young people – and anyone who struggles with their skin – to connect with the character.”

Other depictions of undisguised acne and skin blemishes can be seen in the cult Norwegian teen drama SKAM that enraptured online viewers last year and in the six seasons of Lena Dunham’s hit comedy/drama Girls.

These examples are so noticeable, however, because of how rarely we see flawed skin on screen.

It’s something that’s begun to bother celebrities, who are opening up about their skin on social media. The last two years have seen numerous famous figures – from actor and singer Hilary Duff to model Chrissy Teigen – posting pictures of cellulite, stretch marks, pimples, acne, bruises and body hair.

In March, popstar Justin Bieber told his 102 million followers on Instagram that “pimples are in”.

The singer Lorde joked about society’s attitude towards acne in an Instagram story in February (“Make a mask out of honey, Greek yogurt, and avocado!” she mimicked. “All you need to do is buy an apricot scrub! Coconut oil! The secret is coconut oil!... Do you wash your face?”).

This followed the Golden Globes in January, when Kendall Jenner didn’t cover up her acne with make-up, and responded to a fan praising her confidence: “Never let that shit stop you!” The TV personality had previously written about it on her old website: “It’s a part of life for some people and it doesn’t define who you are”.

The Made in Chelsea and I’m a Celebrity star Toff also went public, revealing her red, acne-scarred skin without make-up on This Morning in February. She felt a duty to open up to her fans: “For so long I’ve hidden. I think actually now I’m in the limelight, I don’t want everyone who follows me to think I’m perfect.”

Influencers too have started a wave of skin positivity. The British blogger, Em Ford, went viral in 2015 with a video entitled “You Look Disgusting” revealing online reactions to her acne – now her “My Pale Skin” YouTube channel has over 1 million subscribers. Instagrammer Kali Kushner’s “myfacestory” account, documenting her acne journey, has over 52,000 followers.

Last summer, Teen Vogue launched its inaugural “Acne Awards”, which aim to rate skin products and give advice – but also to promote skin positivity and answer everyone’s questions about acne, aimed at “making you feel more comfortable in your own skin”. It even ran an “Acne Appreciation” feature, instructing readers on how to create art with their spots – turning them into constellations and colourful freckles.

But it’s the millennial audience – having grown up with Clearasil ads full of perfectly clear-skinned actors, and “nerd” stereotypes as the only spotty characters visible on-screen – whose preconceptions are most undone by skin positivity and skin realism.

According to a survey by the British Skin Foundation, a greater proportion of people over-19 than teenagers report that they have acne (28 per cent of 19-25-year-olds and 22 per cent of 26-35-year-olds compared with 23 per cent of 15-18-year-olds). Overall, 80 per cent of the population suffer from acne at some point.

According to consultant dermatologist and British Skin Foundation spokesperson Dr Anjali Mahto, onscreen depictions of flawed or spotty skin like The Bisexual show we are “increasingly recognising that actually acne is not just a teenage problem; it is something that you can suffer with in adulthood, your twenties, your thirties, your forties, my clinics are definitely testament to that”.

The day we speak over the phone, the majority of Dr Mahto’s patients have been millennials with acne, rather than teenagers. “There is that recognition that it is becoming more normal and it is chronic.”

She finds “the psychological impacts” of acne are different for millennials. “Everyone expects teenagers to have spots and have acne, it’s a normal part of growing up,” she says.

People in their twenties and their thirties, however, “often have important roles, important jobs, and for them, they feel like they’re the spotty teenager who isn’t being taken seriously in the workplace, so they can feel quite isolated as a result of it because they feel like they're not the same as their peer group,” she says.

Indeed, according to the British Skin Foundation, 63 per cent of people with acne experience a fall in self-confidence because of their skin. As the trend for dramas dropping the airbrush continues, let’s hope it isn’t too late for millennial viewers to reverse this feeling.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.