In spite of recent attempts by celebrities like Justin Bieber to make zits seem cool, it’s safe to say most people don’t clamor for an acne-riddled face. After all, we spend billions annually to get rid of the suckers. But there’s new research that suggests there is a bright successful light at the end of the pockmarked tunnel: A new, forthcoming study claims that high school acne sufferers typically have higher GPAs and a greater likelihood of knocking out that bachelor’s degree. (That’s right: You may call me Mr. Professional Pizza Face, thank you.)
The Atlantic reports that economists Hugo Mialon and Erik Nesson from Emory University and Ball State studied intel on thousands of teens from the mid-’90s through the following decade, drawn from data in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health. Those who self-reported acne in high school were more likely to score an A in English, math, history, science and social studies by 1.8 percentage points, and more likely to complete a college degree by 3.8 percentage points.
Why? A simple answer is that having acne makes you feel bad, and people who feel bad don’t go out as often. When they stay in, they study. The feeling-bad part we already knew: Other research found that of the roughly 85 percent of people who experience acne at some point in their lives, 96 percent of them say it makes them depressed, 46 percent develop self-esteem problems, 31 percent decline social invitations over it — including participating in sports — and another 14 percent feel suicidal as a result of acne.
This research finds that, too — the teenagers who reported acne in high school in their data also don’t think very much of themselves physically or consider themselves to have many winning qualities. They are less likely to join sports clubs and instead gravitate toward non-sports clubs. To add insult to injury, even the interviewers who take the original data also rate the teenage acne sufferers as less attractive, with less-attractive personalities, and as more poorly groomed. It’s predictably worse for the women ranked, which makes sense, as women are judged far more harshly on looks. (Women also had a somewhat more positive correlation with higher future earnings as well.)
But what this study adds (and the researchers believe it’s the first of its kind to do so) is that there is a known upside to all this: Yes, it sucks to have acne; yes, you’d rather stay home; but rather than sit around moping, teenagers often use the time to study. That leads to better grades and a college-bound future. The potentially outdoor kid becomes an indoor kid, and it pays off later.
The researchers call that decision to hole up a “shift from physical to intellectual pursuits” or “brain work,” but I like to think of it as living more in your head than in your body when your body isn’t cooperating.
As teens, many of us compensate for physical shortcomings, whether perceived or real, by developing other skills and assets — a sense of humor, a more dynamic personality, kindness or, say, the ability to juggle. When you don’t feel like you can ride on your good looks, you kind of have to find a workaround that puts the spotlight on literally anything else. In other words, if you can’t beat ’em at looks, beat ’em at life.
That’s not to say lookers can’t have these qualities in spades, too. It’s just they may feel less driven to cultivate them if they don’t feel it’s imperative to their social or socioeconomic survival. Another complicating factor is that smart but acne-riddled kids may descend from smart, formerly acne-riddled parents, too, meaning the drive and support would be there regardless of the acne.
But still, if you or your pimply kid could use a win, these results should help. The occasional acne can be a boon for one’s high school and collegiate success. What’s more, the knowledge that it can lead to future success means that, much like campaigns to help gay students look ahead to a time when things get better, a similar sentiment could be promoted to teenagers whose acne drives suicidal ideation.
Of course, the acne, particularly when it’s severe, may not clear up for everyone after graduation and may continue to impede the pro-social skills needed to succeed even with a solid education. There’s been a documented rise in adult acne in recent years due to stress and poor diet. Still, greater earnings at least means greater access to dermatologists, acne fixes thanks to medication or other cosmetic treatments. For men, specifically, there are also more socially accepted coverups.
But when you add all this to the fact that celebrities and social media influencers continue to challenge the notion that acne is something to feel bad about, fix, cover up or alter in selfies, then the news gets brighter yet: Alongside the later payoff in academic success, there is also a relaxing stigma.
All this is to say that having acne may soon also cease to be the often crippling self-esteem killer it once was. Ironically, the downside to this would be that we’ll just have to come up with other excuses to stay in and hit the books. Still, I doubt any of us will be complaining.