SAVING FACE: The false miracles in my futile search for smooth skin

“Why is your face not as smooth as your mother’s?” is a brutal question I was asked by my obnoxiously smooth-faced classmates all through my teenage years, much to my dismay. Obnoxious because I could see no reason as a pimply 16-year-old on the verge of womanhood and dealing with the stress of a pubescent body and the accompanying hormones.

My mother had been an ever-present figure all through my primary and secondary school years and because she always had something to say at every school meeting, everybody knew her (and had witnessed her smooth skin).

I couldn’t comprehend why the adolescent changes (read: pimples) that our guidance and counselling teacher had assured us would occur on our bodies were happening to only me (to be fair, they seemed equally distributed among a select few too) and not my smooth-faced classmates. I was in a girls-only boarding school in secondary school so the pressure to be popular (read: smooth-faced) had the intensity of tight-fitting fake leather shoes in scorching January heat.


My mother, God bless her heart, told me it would pass.

“We are blessed with smooth skin genes so just be patient. By the time you hit your twenties, you shall be fine. Just don’t keep poking at them!”

She was a Home Science teacher so her words were quite weighty. I trusted her I for the few months I was home after I sat my KCPE as I waited for these genes to show their face.

And then a Nairobi Fly did a number on my face and titled the equation of my delicate sanity. I reported to my Form One class with not just acne and its resultant scars but also angry red marks to remind me of my short-lived relationship with the Nairobi Fly that lost its life trying to joke with my sanity.

But it is not just the angry red marks that I was armed with.

Tucked neatly at the bottom of my metal suitcase was Fair&Lovely, a “miracle” cream that I had seen being advertised on TV by an Asian woman whose marks seemed to disappear within the two minutes the commercial took to air.

Fair&Lovely was the key to my skin salvation and my dear mother indulged me.

For three weeks, I indulged in a misguided facial scrubbing (I used some stubbornly hard piece of towel) and applied dollops of Fair&Lovely on my face, convinced that it would be my Joshua to the Promised Land of smooth skin.

After three weeks…nothing!

The advertisement had said that there would be “results” after three weeks so I had reached my wits’ end. My religious scrubbing left my cheeks scarred and I had to go on Vaseline to heal the wounds as I pondered my next move.

Later, when I had recovered from my Fair&Lovely stint, a misguided classmate introduced me to Venus Hair Treatment as the ultimate cure for my pimples. I managed to convince my mother to buy me a jar for the term.


It worked, for a few weeks, until my face started drying up and caking in patches, forcing me to go back to good old petroleum jelly.

I zig-zagged through treatments all through my teens and early twenties, leaving me each time more scarred and disillusioned than I did before it all started.

From steaming my face to rubbing lemon and banana peels on my face, there was not a treatment in sight I was not open to trying.

The only treatment I did not try was bathing in pure milk. Someone suggested that Cleopatra of Egypt used to do it every day and she had the perfect skin. I could hardly afford a packet of milk a day, let alone the 20 litres that I assumed I would need to bathe with!


My obsession saw me spend Sh3,500 for a visit to a dermatologist once.

It does not sound like much until I tell you that at the time, my salary was Sh7,000 and my house rent was Sh4,000, which sufficiently set me on the path to being debt-ridden. I went to see a doctor who dismissed me ten minutes later with these wise words:

“Buy a water-based moisturiser, avoid Coke and chocolates.”

She gave me a little piece of paper with the same information as she shooed me out the door with a final:

“I have surgery scheduled right now, so I’m running late.”

I was too stunned to give her the Millie Odhiambo response that I have executed countless times in my imagination.

My frustration with my skin was so obvious that my father once offered to buy me Ambi. Ambi Special Complexion Cream , in case you are wondering, is a skin-bleaching cream that was banned by the government for containing harmful chemicals. It was banned alongside my other fauvorite creams at the time: Peau Claire Crème, Pimplex Medicated Cream and Shirley Cream. In retrospect, I should have been worried that some of these creams costed only Sh50!


I will not mention the soaps that I used at the time. Suffice it to say that you can find them in the Kenya Bureau of Standards banned products list as well.

Now that I’m in my thirties, and embracing myself and my flaws more fiercely than I did in my twenties, I’m more worried about skin cancer and wrinkles than I’m about my pimples and scars.

I smile gently when strangers (why do they do that?) stop me once in a while to tell me about the next miracle that will start me off on the path to smooth skin. I sip my water and apply moisturiser as I watch advertisements promising this soap or this cream will make me smooth again.

I’m content in the knowledge that some people, like me, were not meant to enjoy the Canaan of flawless skin.

It’s only in embracing my flaws that I calmed down enough to realise that every skin, flawless or not, needs to be cleansed and moisturised. Add a toner and sunscreen to the mix and you are well on your way to…well, Canaan.

Are skin or hair issues driving you up the wall? Or have you found a way around them? Interested in sharing your story? Email [email protected]