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TikToker Emma Brooks smiles after an interview about her acne.

Emma Brooks Doesn’t Believe In "Bad" Skin

The TikTok star is done listening to haters.

Tawni Bannister

“When I was 15 and on Accutane, it was one of the first times I went to a mental hospital,” Emma Brooks McAllister tells me three minutes into our Zoom interview. The 20-year-old TikToker and social media influencer has a gift that way. She opens herself like a book, flips to a chapter — revelatory, triumphant, painful — and reads herself to you out loud.

On the surface, Brooks, who joined TikTok in October 2019 and has amassed nearly 4 million followers since, seems like just another Charli or Dixie or Addison on your For You page: she knows her way around a viral dance video and is comfortable in the internet-famous Gen Z uniform of a crop top or bikini. But interspersed in Brooks’ feed are videos for her fans where she shares her real, raw feelings and — importantly — her bare face, sometimes inflamed with bright pink and red acne.

“I remember the first time I cried [about] comments on my appearance, about a year ago,” she tells me. Despite dealing with cystic and fungal acne since high school, Brooks said she disconnected from herself and “wasn’t listening to [her] body or what it needed.” She says, “That's when the comments about my skin started happening and I just didn't know what to do.”

A glimpse into those comments came through a video she posted to TikTok in June during Acne Awareness Month. Brooks superimposed screenshots of the criticism she’s received about her skin into the clip, which range from misguided compliments — “I can’t believe how hot you are even with the acne” — to straight trolling — “your skin is gross, bro, hahaha.”

As anyone with the comments turned on on their Instagram knows, the anonymity of the internet makes people brave and cruel. “I was really insecure, and I was frustrated that I was insecure, because there were all these people that I didn't know who acted like they knew what I did every single day, or what I ate, or put on my face,” she says. “It hurt a lot, but it started this journey of me sharing my frustrations.”

Brooks started talking openly about her skin on Snapchat. “I have such a community there and I can really interact,” she says. “I started showing my bare face, just being like, ‘This is real skin. There are these unrealistic expectations of what my skin should look like, and that's not what reality is.’ Then I started getting comments like, ‘I have the same skin type,’ and, ‘Thank you for making me feel better.’” Acne can be isolating, and sharing hers made Brooks feel less alone. “I thought that opening up may make me feel better. Talking things out and putting them out there makes it easier for me to walk myself through it.”

The bare-faced sharing that Brooks engages in is still rare on social media. Despite the burgeoning rise of self-acceptance rhetoric online, you’re still hard-pressed to find many social media stars showing off cysts or breakouts. Even people with adoring fans aren’t quite ready to ditch the filter.

“I’m guilty [of it], too,” says Brooks. “I use filters, but I really try not to do it all the time because it's sad. Why do I feel like I need to change my face for this photo?” According to a 2021 survey, 62% of U.S. Gen Zers use filters on social media, and 23% do so to drastically alter their appearance. Brooks points out the danger of this habit succinctly, saying “You feel the joy of liking what [you look like], but it makes you even sadder whenever you realize, ‘Oh, I don't look like that at all.’”

Before becoming a content creator, Brooks was a dancer who had set her sights on pageants and modeling, both industries which presented their own set of self-esteem-crushing expectations. “Looking at [my]self [through] beauty standards at such a young age, it was frustrating because I wanted to look a certain way. I wanted my skin to be a certain way and it just wasn't.” Brooks spent three years on and off the aforementioned Accutane, from the ripe ages of 15 to 18.

Like many people who take the drug, Brooks didn’t have an easy time. “It increases depression and anxiety a lot. You get nosebleeds. It was a lot,” she says. “And I'm not saying [my mental hospital stay] was because of Accutane, but it definitely did not help me at the time.”

An erstwhile psych ward teen myself, I wonder how being hospitalized affected Brooks’ relationship with her skin. “When I was trying to grow into someone that was more mentally healthy, I felt like I looked better,” she says. “Taking a step back from myself and taking a step back, in general, made everything a lot better because when I was focused on how I was feeling internally, I wasn't focused on what I looked like externally.”

It’s something she had to work at, especially considering the serious impact previous pageant experiences had on Brooks’ self-image. When she was 16, she says, “I had a judge at a pageant spend his whole interview portion talking to me about how I should ‘better my skin.’”

That wasn’t the only time an adult man involved in pageants brought up the condition of her complexion. She tells me the story of competing at nationals at the Miss Teen USA competition in 2019, after being crowned Miss Louisiana Teen. On the night she arrived, she exfoliated her skin so aggressively that she broke out in a rash. “I had scrubbed my face too hard,” she said. “So, I decided to not wear makeup.”

Brooks was the only girl in the country who competed bare-faced in the pageant that year. It was an act of defiance, in a way, of prioritizing herself over others’ perceptions of her. “I'm really happy that I showed myself that kind of respect,” she says. But not everyone felt that way. “A director, the night after I competed, walked up to me,” she says, “and he basically said I didn't look good the entire week, and I didn't present myself [well] because I didn't wear any makeup.”

At the time of our interview, Brooks is just coming off a three-week break from wearing makeup. It’s something she does for fun now, with a focus on protecting her skin barrier (it’s part of the reason why she partnered with BYOMA, a skin care company passionate about doing just that) and emphasizing her features, instead of covering up — a stark change from her old habits.

Kids who grow up in stage makeup before they’re taught how skin care works can often get swept into a vicious cycle Brooks has encountered herself. “I don't think that I knew how to take care of my skin, so the makeup just kind of played into my [skin issues].” Aside from makeup contributing to breakouts, Brooks also learned early that facial beauty mattered — and beauty definitely didn’t include acne.

“There’s this idea that having clear, smooth skin is what is beautiful and what is right. That's what will get you to places. People will treat you nicely, treat you better, if you have good skin,” she says. Though she’s not saying the quiet part out loud (namely, that bad skin is ugly and people will treat you badly if you’re ugly), it’s still there, lingering in the airwaves between us and in the minds of every teenager who’s ever broken out across their T-zone.

“Those standards obviously are not realistic whatsoever, and I don't believe in them,” Brooks adds. “But growing up, when you're young, that's what you're surrounded by.” This, coming from a young woman who’s received an abundance of criticism about her skin that most people, myself included, would crumble under. But Brooks has spent years not crumbling.

In sunny LA, away from crowns, competitions, and high school, Brooks continues to focus on feeling comfortable in her own imperfect skin. “I've worked on learning how to love my skin on the bad days because I don't want to hate it,” she says. “I really love my skin right now and I have little blemishes, but I really don't mind them.”

Like many people, Brooks practices self-talk as a way to unlearn the negative reactions she had developed towards herself and her skin. “I’ve taken the time to really look at myself and [say], ‘You don't look bad. These blemishes you have, or the redness, or the irritation, or discoloration, the bags under your eyes, all of it, that doesn't mean anything. You're alive. Everyone has it.’” Everyone does have it. It's easy to forget that if you’re Very Online — even more so if you live as much of your life on social media as Brooks does, where filters can smooth away the flaws that make you human.

At the end of the day, she considers herself still under construction, someone who’s made strides and will keep striding. “You can't be like, ‘Oh, I'm not insecure,’ and then [just] not be insecure,” she says, sagely. “It's a work in progress.”

Photographer: Tawni Bannister