What Does Paleo Look Like? Part 7

This is the seventh of a handful of posts I’ve solicited from some friends in the ancestral health community whose voices I admire (Part 1 by Tara Grant is here, Part 3 by Anastasia Boulais here, Part 4 by James Murphy here, Part 5 by Ben Morgan here, Part 6 by Jamie Scott here). I’ll be posting these in the days leading up to AHS13. It’s my hope that these dispatches will resonate with others out there and help dispel the notion that everyone in ancestral health have hunter-gatherer physiques and zero health struggles. I’m tired of the apologies and I’m tired of people not feeling welcome. We all come to ancestral health for our own reasons, and this is too important of a movement to let divisions arise over perfectly normal, human experiences.

I’m fresh out of friends’ stories, so you get to hear from me today.


If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ve probably heard me mention that my body comp isn’t what I’d like it to be right now or that I have cankles. Like James mentioned a few days ago, I have a laundry list of things that I don’t absolutely love about myself—some I can change, others I can’t. So I’ll discuss something that I feel has potentially had the biggest impact on me for most of my adult life.

Age 16ish.

Age 16ish, with about 2 pounds of spackle on my face.

Around the time I turned 15, my skin broke out into the worst acne. It wasn’t cyclical, as in, my hormonal cycles didn’t seem to matter, it was just terrible all the time. I would wake up every morning with at least 3 new ones on my face. And I’m not just talking about little red spots. I mean huge, cystic, disgusting pus monsters that might’ve more accurately been called abscesses. Some were so epic they would actually cause the lymph nodes under my chin to swell and harden.

High school was horrible for me for multiple reasons, and this just gave everyone one more thing to make fun of me for. I would wake up at 5:30am in order to spend 2 hours in the bathroom getting ready before school. Every day. After all, if I was perfect, nobody could make fun of me, right? I meticulously applied make-up to the mountains, not molehills, on my face. First, a layer of foundation then dots of concealer, sometimes several times before I felt it was adequately covered. Powder on top of that. Then the icing on the cake—eyeliner, eye shadow, mascara—to distract from the obvious flaws. My hair also had to be perfect, and I remember more than once how my entire day was ruined when it was windy or rainy. It’s almost like I had enabler syndrome, because the more people made fun of me, the more perfect I tried to be to prevent their taunts. I traveled with make-up in my backpack for touch-ups, which was between every class since my oily skin wouldn’t hold on to the make-up for very long. I’ll admit to vanity, but people must have thought I was the most narcissistic person on the planet with how many times I checked myself in the mirror. It wasn’t narcissism though, it was pure fear and damage control.

In my early 20s, I went on a strange date when I lived in San Francisco. Some friends were looking for a girlfriend for their good friend, and they thought it would be fun to interview dates for him. I have no idea why this sounded like a good idea to me at the time, but it probably had something to do with the fact that SF’s dating scene for young straight women was abominable. So I met them for lunch and we had a good time. They followed up with an email asking me why I wore so much make-up, and it broke my heart too much to explain it to them.

Age 18, trying to hide.

Age 18, trying to hide.

Another time, at my college café job, a hippie-ish mother-daughter duo came in. As I was ringing them up, they looked at me with these beaming faces and the daughter said, “You have the most beautiful skin.” I almost choked to death on my own saliva, because no one had ever said that to me. EVER. And the thing was I didn’t, I was just as broken-out as ever, but even in my flabbergasted state I could tell that they were seeing something I couldn’t.

Nothing ever helped, not creams, lotions, tonics, potions, voodoo. Nothing. People told me to wash my face more, as though I’d never thought of that. Yeah, I’m just a dirty idiot, eff you very much. Around age 26, I began taking birth control pills, and that plus a topical retinoid cream was the only thing that finally ended my misery. Eventually, I wanted to get pregnant so the pills had to go. The repercussions weren’t too bad and I switched to an antibacterial topical gel. Everything seemed fine until my daughter stopped breastfeeding, and then the skin went haywire again.

After going Paleo in January of 2011, I enjoyed the clearest skin since I turned 15. It was miraculous. I couldn’t even see the miniature crater blackheads on my nose! My pores shrank to nothing and I would touch my smooth, glowing skin because I couldn’t believe it was real.

And then? The magic went away. I have no idea why, but about a year into Paleo, it crept back. I’ve even had a few cystic outbreaks. I clearly have some other source of inflammation in my body and I’m not sure how far down another rabbithole I’m willing to go to solve it. Right now just isn’t a good time for that. I’m hopeful that microbiome research will yield some answers in the near future. I’m no longer comfortable using antibacterial gels on my skin or pills to manage a symptom. My body is trying to tell me something and perhaps someday I’ll figure out how to interpret those signals.

Florida No Make-UpAs others in this series have noted, I avoided photographs for years based on my awful skin. I remember having to have my senior class photo extensively touched up to remove the blemishes my make-up couldn’t hide. I mean, I think some of those suckers had their own shadows, they were so bad! But since having my daughter four years ago, there are many, many photos of me sans make-up. And it’s interesting. Because pre-Paleo, my skin had this tired, sallow look to it. And sure, we can all pat me on the back and say, “That’s just the new mom sleep deprivation yadda yadda yadda…”, but I think we all know the truth—real food diets help skin!

Last year, we vacationed in Florida, and I could sense my camera-hound husband sneaking up on me. I vowed not to ruin another photo of me just because I didn’t have make-up on. I turned to the camera and smiled. Not too shabby, eh? My husband swears it’s his favorite picture of me.

The last few years, it’s been my personal mission to unravel my unrealistic expectations of myself—perfectionist rehab. I’ve cut my hair into a style that requires less maintenance and I even let it blow in the wind. I can go in public with very little make-up on, or even none if absolutely necessary. When I do wear all my make-up, it takes me about 5 minutes to apply from start to finish. I try to keep it simple. I take pride in attempting to let a natural beauty emerge. After all, Paleo may not have eradicated all of my acne, but I have fewer wrinkles, my skin glows, and it doesn’t have that pasty, tired look to it anymore. I’ll take it.

The reason I chose this topic to talk about is because it caused some lifelong scars. No, not on my face (luckily!), but in the way I relate with people face-to-face. And this has direct bearing on how I interact at conferences.

Hawaii Tree ClimbingNow, I’m a grade-A, awkward introvert to begin with, but this just throws me over into downright weirdo territory. I never understood how much it had affected me until someone pointed out (it’s always someone pointing it out, isn’t it?) that I was terrible at eye contact. And I realized in that moment that I avoided eye contact because I didn’t want to see them looking at all the awful things on my face.

And so I face AHS13 with a grab-bag of suboptimal symptoms. I’m not the poster child for ancestral health. Or am I? Seems to me, if this body image series is to be believed, we ALL have something nagging at us, something that Paleo just couldn’t fix. Perhaps Paleo, for all its wonderful side effects, is just another conduit for understanding what it means to be human on earth today. And maybe when we understand that everyone else has something they agonize about too, then we can begin the process of forgiving ourselves and moving into a fuller existence.


11 Responses to “What Does Paleo Look Like? Part 7”

  1. Oh Karen, you are so not alone. I piled it on too in High School and didn’t even have a skin issue to battle. I would have never dared to leave the house without a full face of it and hairsprayed shellacked 80s hair! Like you, now it’s minimal makeup, super quick, when I feel like it. Grateful with age comes more confidence and self appreciation. Thanks for this series. It’s the best “paleo” anything I’ve read in quite a while. Well done Karen!

    • Thank you D! I know I’m not alone, which is why I feel it’s important to reach out in honesty so others know they’re not alone either. :) Everyone belongs to the Lonely Hearts Club, but we all belong to it together. If we can keep that perspective, these issues just get smaller and smaller.

  2. Great series, Karen. Very concrete reminders that mental and physical health trump vanity if happiness if your very human goal. Thanks.

    • Thank you, Deborah! When others have posted about their weight struggles with ancestral diets, I feel a bit dismissed because weight hasn’t been my biggest issue. Like, I can’t fully understand their perspective because I haven’t faced that particular frustration. And maybe there’s some truth to that, and I honor their feelings, but I just see it as a fact that all humans struggle and suffer. And I think when we forget that about others, we eventually forget it about ourselves and lose a great opportunity for self-forgiveness. I hope this series has been able to give everyone a peek into the workings of other humans.

  3. I, too, had skin issues that compounded my shyness. Only a couple of long rounds of acutane did anything for my complexion. My diet back then was typical SAD and very high in sugar. No way to know whether a healthier diet could have helped, but I am very happy with how my skin looks today (age 55) after several years eating Paleo. Thanks for sharing – you are so right, we all have our issues and would be well served to recognize that everyone needs compassion.

  4. I can relate to this on so many levels and it brings up a lot of bad junior high/early high school memories. Boy, am I glad those days are over! Really great article and series, Karen!

  5. I’ve always thought you were stunning KP – because you are. At 42 I am just now starting to appreciate my body. It makes me sad that I spent all those years feeling so embarrassed by it.

  6. I have really enjoy reading through this series of posts. It helps to know that we have all come into this paleo/primal/ancestral… whatever you want to call it world for different reasons but ultimately for our health. Thanks for the awesome posts and thanks for sharing your own story!

  7. “And maybe when we understand that everyone else has something they agonize about too, then we can begin the process of forgiving ourselves and moving into a fuller existence.”

    I think it’s this more than anything else that I find exciting about the Paleo movement. It’s not the way that people eat when they’re Paleo, it’s the way that they try to think differently. It’s saying both “we’re animals on this planet like any other animal” and “we have the potential to rise above our animality and to achieve something really special”.

    If only *everyone* could have the insight you describe, what a fabulous place we could make of this planet.


  1. What Does Paleo Look Like? Part 7 | Paleo Digest - 08/12/2013

    […] Paleo Periodical / Posted on: August 12, 2013The Paleo Periodical – This is the seventh of a handful of posts I’ve solicited from some friends in the […]

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