Anna Francis is a freelance digital writer with an interest in women’s lifestyle and mental health. Find her on Instagram @thisisannalisa. Here she reveals why she’s changing her attitude when it comes to dealing with a lifelong skin condition…
“Why do you always have a rash on your legs?” my friend asked as we sat on the bench ahead of swimming class. I was around 13 and had, as far as I recall, never given the skin on my thighs much thought before. I didn’t know the answer to her question but I immediately assumed that this ‘rash’ wasn’t normal. I went from barely having noticed it to then spending many, many years afterwards trying to fix it.
It turned out though that, like many things in life, what I feared was abnormal about myself was in fact quite natural. I have keratosis pilaris, otherwise attractively known to some as ‘chicken skin’. It is described by the NHS as ‘a very common, harmless condition where small bumps appear on your skin’, which can be dry, rough and itchy and tend to form on the arms, thighs or bum. The condition – which happens when a build-up of keratin blocks the hair follicles – can run in families and has a tendency to stick around for years. Always nice to have something to look forward to…
With age I became increasingly aware of this staggering difference between my ‘rash’ legs and those that I saw in the media
So why, with this being such a common affliction, did it make me feel so strange and embarrassed? Perhaps it’s because, as a teenage girl looking to the outside world for reassurance, I’d realised that this was something we just don’t tend to see out in the open. After all, those affected by KP probably aren’t too keen on showing off their bumpy skin for all to see (which I can now attest to), and for me – with the condition particularly manifesting on my thighs – this has been made worse by the lack of ‘normal’ looking legs in the media. Take a look through a glossy magazine and you’ll notice that adverts and photoshoots tend to depict blemish-free, silky-smooth and evenly tanned pins – no ‘chicken skin’ in sight. And don’t even get me started on the alarming falseness of many Instagram and social media images.
With age I became increasingly aware of this staggering difference between my ‘rash’ legs and those that I saw in the media, and it turns out I’m not the only one. Actress and activist Jameela Jamil recently admitted in a candid Instagram post that seeing her legs looking flawless in a heavily airbrushed photo of herself negatively affected her mental health. So imagine the issues it can cause as an outsider looking at a picture that we may not be aware has been retouched – we assume that this snapshot depicts the norm, and worry because our bodies don’t match.
Perhaps without realising it for a while, this confusion between image and reality damaged me too. I was convinced for years after the swimming incident that my legs were something to be embarrassed about, and felt paranoid over the reactions of others. This sucks the most when it gets in the way of you living your life; on one occasion I was exploring a Greek island for the first time on a press trip, yet instead of taking in the beautiful scenery I couldn’t help but wonder whether my travel companions were looking at my thighs – bare in a tiny playsuit thanks to the 36-degree heat – with secret disgust.
The insecurity led to years of trying various products and tricks in the hope of ridding myself of the issue, which was ultimately a tactic to overcome the low self-esteem underneath it all. That old chestnut of “If x happens I’ll be happy” type-thinking crept in; “If it’s gone and I have perfect legs I’ll be a more attractive and confident person”. I went through a variety of shower gels, lotions, exfoliants, soaps and even hair removal methods on my mission. Occasionally I had minor results, only for the KP to reemerge again as angry as ever.
they’re natural and mine, and just real life really
But then something unexpectedly changed – not with my stubborn skin (there’s no way that will back down without a fight, oh no), but with my mind. Recently, with the rise of the body positive movement, I’ve started to be more accepting of the condition. Okay, so I won’t exactly be pointing it out to strangers and asking them to feel the, um, lovely tactile bumps, but if I’m having a particularly aggressive outbreak – and it’s a hot day and I want to bare some skin – then I’m not going to feel that I have to hide it away. My legs will still be out in their pale, blemished and bumpy glory, because they’re natural and mine, and just real life really. I’ve spent too many years fretting about the way my body looks and frankly I don’t want to waste much more time on doing so. Who wants to be so preoccupied with what they look like that they forget to actually enjoy life experiences? Changing my mindset is a work in process but I’m determined to set a positive example to those like my insecure teenage self; I look at my friends’ gorgeous young daughters and can’t bear the thought of them receiving the negative body image messages that so clearly affected me.
I’m not saying that you have to throw out all products and be done with it, of course – if you find something that works and gives you that extra bit of confidence then go for it. Personally I have yet to strike upon anything that offers solid results with KP; I’ve tried some of the specialist products available on the market and had some success, but find that I really have to commit to using them regularly (which, let’s face it, in today’s insanely busy world can be a challenge). My advice would be to occasionally use a very gentle exfoliating mitt along with an equally mild body lotion. And perhaps, rather than focusing on getting rid of the condition, think of these more as self-care tools. There is also the option of course to speak to a pharmacist if you’re really struggling.
But if you try all of that and it still doesn’t clear (which, with keratosis pilaris known for persistently returning, is sadly quite likely)? Please don’t worry. We’ve come so far recently in showing that things like cellulite and body hair are perfectly normal – so isn’t it about time that natural, blemished, angry-red-bumpy legs, like mine and countless other women’s, become the next skin ‘taboo’ to be broken?