It’s time to get Proactiv


Although acne is a natural process of puberty in which most teenagers go through, acne is still greatly stigmatized within society. Acne and acne-prone skin has long been an indication of “flawed” skin, while acne-free, clean, and clear skin, has been a marker of “flawless” skin and beauty. There are two different approaches to advertising acne products: the social approach and the medical approach. The social approach hinges on the anxiety and insecurities individuals have towards acne, whereas the medical approach looks to science to make acne-fighting products more justified and legitimate.


The social approach is exemplified in this Proactiv poster advertisement. In bold, it says: “Got Acne? Just ask your boyfriend what to do. Oh, that’s right, you don’t have a boyfriend”. First of all, this ad very explicitly encroaches on the very insecurities that many have, catching the reader off guard. The ad overtly states the potential social capital gained as a result of having flawless skin. Hunter mentions that beauty “can be transformed into social capital (social networks), symbolic capital (esteem or status), or even economic capital (high-paying job or promotion)” (145). The ad conflates the presence of acne and ugliness with the absence of a relationship, which perpetuate the potential social capital that comes with beauty.


Also, this ad is gendered and heteronormative. The use of pink in the text assumes associations of pink with women. On top of that, women are presumed to be interested in men, with the pink (indication of women) colored text and referral to the boyfriend. The ad also instructs the audience to “ask your boyfriend what to do”. This ultimately reinforces the patriarchal society we live in because it presumes that the boyfriend is more logical and smarter than the woman reader. Looking further at the ad’s use of color, the black background serves as a stark contrast from the white Proactiv bottles. The whiteness of these bottles portrays the pure, innocent, and good that comes out of using Proactiv. Proactiv is your solution. Kathy Peiss describes this belief that “outer appearance corresponded to inner character…[where] hair, skin, and eye color frequently stood as signs of women’s inner virtue” (24). This is where the previously mentioned “flawed” skin is associated with flawed character. However, Proactiv gives the reader the opportunity to change their flawed character, by being proactive. This points to a larger concept that displays beauty and clear skin as something fixable. Acne is something that needs to be fixed, or else, the person will have to deal with the consequences and loss of social capital. However, thinking that all acne is fixable “deflects attention from structural inequalities based on” class, as many people are unable to afford these products (Davis, pg. 6).

This is compared to the medical approach that Proactiv uses to target a different set of audience, but still ignores structural inequalities. This video here shows white women in white lab coats using medical language to demonstrate how Proactiv “cures” acne. The terms used, such as therapy, formula, concentration, and hormones, comforts middle to upper class audiences who are able to understand these terms, while excluding all other audiences. Using medical terms makes the audience think that it has been tested many times before, suggesting that the products are legitimate and valid for use.


Overall, the medical and social approach to advertising acne products fuel one another. The use of medical terms in acne product advertising upholds the western-centric medical perspective that medicine is The Cure and the solution to all things. This is further reinforced through societal expectations and standards of beauty by linking beauty with moral character and social capital, which ultimately ignores class or any other structural inequality. Since structural barriers have been erased, not being “proactiv” reflects upon the person’s moral character of being too lazy and disinterested in self-improvement; when in reality, the barriers to acne-free skin may be linked to class or the fact that Proactiv just does not work on their skin.


Davis, K. (2003). Dubious equalities and embodied differences: Cultural studies on cosmetic surgery. Rowman & Littlefield.


Hunter, M. L. (2011). Buying racial capital: Skin-bleaching and cosmetic surgery in a globalized world. The Journal of Pan African Studies4(4), 142-164.


Peiss, K. (2011). Hope in a jar: The making of America’s beauty culture. University of Pennsylvania Press.


4 thoughts on “It’s time to get Proactiv

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  1. I’ve had “skin problems” ever since I turned 14, up until now. The way you mentioned that the Proactiv ad “overtly states the potential social capital gained as a result of having flawless skin” was interesting because it reminded me of how beauty is seen as an egalitarian, accessible way to “improve yourself”. This is explicit even in how the acne product is named, “pro-active”. The product is being marketed as a “do it yourself” way to seem more beautiful through the “fixing” of acne to produce clear skin. Actually,

    In fact, acne ads often remind me of whitening skin product ads, which are usually marketed in the same way as “lightening” or “brightening” products. These products are demonstrated to erase blemishes or dark scars left by acne, creating a prettier “natural” self. In this case, by connecting love, romance, and beauty with “brighter” (read: whiter) or “unflawed” skin, they also connected the lack of this social (and racial) capital with darker or “blemished” skin.


  2. Your post makes me reflect on my own experience with acne medicine advertising. As a middle-schooler and early high-schooler, I watched a great deal of TeenNick (primarily Degrassi, and then That 70’s Show later on). I was fortunate enough not to really struggle with acne at that time, but I remember that advertisements for “acne medicine”, Proactiv among others, was the topic of almost half of all the commercials! I began to think that, first, acne was a problem of teenagers, and only teenagers, and, second, that I probably could “improve” my skin somehow, get rid of the few zits I had, if I just bought one of these products. Fortunately, my mother talked me out of it, but I think that those internalized associations continue today.
    The first statement of your blog post, about acne being a normal part of teenage life, was particularly striking, as I have come to realize that acne is a “problem” not only of teenagers, but also many adults. I wonder if adults that struggle with acne stigma feel as though they are stuck in a particular life phase, or are “behind” or “unnatural” in their struggle with a “teenage” problem. How powerful has media and advertising been in not only influencing our consideration of others, but our internalized views of ourselves?
    Your blog post also causes me to reflect on the history of “unblemished” skin. Where did this association of “unflawed” or “smooth” skin with beauty come from? Is it entirely a product of Western, white beauty norms? Or is it rooted in a variety of cultural and global histories and practices? How do we combat something that is so problematic but so rooted in our culture?


  3. I honestly am shocked by this ad. It not only “reinforces the patriarchal society we live in because it presumes that the boyfriend is more logical and smarter than the woman reader” but also suggests that everyone’s deep insecurity is not having a boyfriend. You can still be happy, complete person and not have a boyfriend. The ad also presumes that the only reason a boy might like you is because of your looks. It reduces, in this heteronormative case, a woman’s appeal to her appearance. It not only reflects, but also actively reenforces and creates insecurities in the consumer in order to make the consumer feel the need to buy the company’s product to “fix” their insecurities. Proactiv as a product is interesting to think about because while it does “help” people have clearer skin and gain more social capital, it also perpetuates problematic standards of beauty. How do you shift beauty culture away from the discourse of needing to change or alter your body to feel beautiful?


  4. This post resonated with me because though I didn’t struggle much with acne growing up, but my little sister did. She took prescription acne medication for a long time and watching her go through the side effects was awful. I can see how the desire for clear skin relates to the ideal of “natural” beauty. Given, these ads portray clear skin as something to work towards through financial and physical labor. Yet the result, “flawless” skin, means that one would be able to be beautiful without make-up or other “superficial” means. It serves a different beauty purpose than say make-up. You can tell (usually) if someone is wearing make-up, but you can’t tell if someone uses acne products. In a way, this reminds me of the other beauty labors people undertake to look naturally beautiful. There are supplements/medications, waist trainers, and other methods of doing work for the purpose of looking like you don’t do any work at all (you woke up like that). This can obviously be traced to the stigma of obviously putting work into your appearance, where you can be called “vain” or “basic.” Instead, this type of beauty work holds less social stigma though it can potentially have harsher side effects than wearing foundation.


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