January 13, 2021
Lou Northcote spent most of her childhood in Dubai flipping through glossy magazines and dreaming of becoming a cover girl. With a tall, thin frame; a beautiful face; and a modeling career that started when she was just ten years old, her fantasy seemed perfectly within reach.
“Modeling was my whole life, and I thought I would always do it,” Lou says. But when she was 16 and began getting acne, she was mercilessly dropped by her agency and pushed out of the industry, told not to return until she had cleared her skin, Women’s Health Magazine reports.
After moving to England for boarding school a year later, Lou’s breakouts went from bad to worse, and she soon found herself wearing makeup around the clock to cover up her cysts. “
Indeed, it wasn’t until six years ago that she felt comfortable going makeup-free. With the help of dermatologists, good skincare products, and some antibiotics, Lou’s acne started to clear up. And in 2017, a return to modeling seemed in sight. She was offered a place as a contestant on Britain’s Next Top Model, which she eagerly accepted. But as soon as she arrived on set, the breakouts reappeared.
“The first challenge was to take all of your makeup off and go bare-faced,” she says. “I just remember I kept apologizing for my acne, as though it were something to be sorry for.” Lou’s time on the show eventually came to an end, and she had to battle her acne all over again—and an entire country’s worth of television viewers had seen her pimpled skin.
When the first episode aired in the fall, the then-20-year-old was worried she’d receive hate and criticism from those watching, so she decided to take things into her own hands. “I thought, ‘I’m just going to post a photo of my acne and talk about my struggle with it and see if there’s anyone else out there like me,’” Lou says. Wearing a sweatshirt that had “Free the Pimple” emblazoned on the front, she snapped a selfie that showcased her acne-ridden face and shared it on Instagram alongside a lengthy caption detailing her fight against acne.
“I have heard it all before: pizza face, crater face, I’m ugly because of my skin, wash ur face, ur dirty, ur disgusting, ur greasy, etc., the list goes on and on,” Lou wrote—fully expecting the post to be met with mean or negative comments. Instead, the response was quite the opposite. Not only did she not receive any hate, but her bold move actually encouraged others to do the same, and pretty soon, dozens of others were taking to Instagram and Twitter to share their own experiences with acne.
In the following months, Lou continued posting about acne, taking her followers along on her personal journey and offering general acne awareness. But it wasn’t until she wrote the story, This model wants to #free the pimple, for i-D Magazine, published in April 2018, that she started to see some real opportunity in so-called Skinstagrams.
With a goal of not just sharing her own acne battle but instead providing a forum for anyone to tell their story, Lou created the @freethepimple_ page and #freethepimple hashtag in August 2018. “It was important to differentiate it from my own personal Instagram because it wasn’t only about me and my struggles,” she notes. “It was an entire movement.”
Nearly two years and thousands of posts later, Women’s Health reports, Lou’s vision has indeed become a movement. “Social media is such an amazing tool, and I feel so lucky to have this platform,” she says. “If I’d tried to do something like this back in the day, I probably would have had to go petition parliament or something.” But rather than shout, “Free the Pimple” in the House of Commons, the model-turned-activist and her more than 43,000 followers, between the @freethepimple_ page and her personal account, have shared raw, unedited photos of their blemishes and embraced what’s long been treated like a plague for exactly what it is: just a part of life.
While Lou’s efforts have been instrumental in shaping the Skinstagram movement, she is now joined by a host of other activists and influencers, who are similarly using social media to bring acne into the mainstream. There’s Kali Kushner, the 24-year old behind @myfacestory, blogger Em Ford of @mypaleskinblog, and Costanza Concha of @skinnoshame, alongside thousands of others sharing their breakouts and acne journeys with the world. The acne-positivity movement has also been embraced by celebrities like Kendall Jenner, Lili Reinhart, and Bella Thorne.
As Lou’s #freethepimple campaign has grown, so too has its purpose. She now seeks not only to normalize and destigmatize acne among her following but also to provide useful and accurate information in a sector where truth is often hard to find. “I really try to use my platform to educate people,” she says. “I’m lucky to have had access to all these dermatologists and all this different skincare, so I try to share that.”
That being said, she never tries to push any products on her followers or insist that they use one thing over another. Rather, Lou uses her accounts to identify various ingredients and explain their benefits, to discuss the lesser-known side effects of acne—like the excruciating physical pain it can cause—and even to determine which makeup won’t irritate acne-prone skin. After posting a recent series on foundation that can be used with acne, the #freethepimple creator heard from one appreciative follower, who for years had tried and failed to find a foundation that worked for her breakouts—but thanks to Lou’s reviews, finally had an answer. “It’s really amazing to think that I’m actually changing people’s lives,” she says.
Research contact: WomensHealthMag