It’s OK to Have Pores

Time for a little reality check. Let us examine:


This is a typical makeup ad, of the kind usually found in the front sections of monthly fashion mags. People talk a lot about rampant Photoshopping of bodies in ads and editorials and this is, indeed, a practice that is both common and damaging. There has been a lively conversation around the industrial practice of making women’s bodies look impossibly tall, thin, and curvy and I want that conversation to continue until real changes are made. Interestingly, though, I feel like considerably less attention is paid to the Photoshopping of skin and faces. I mean, there will be some uproar when a 46-year-old celeb shows up on the cover of something-or-other with the complexion of a 20-year-old, but I actually find what’s shown in the image above to be slightly more insidious.

This is a very young woman, not an older woman made to look younger. AND SHE HAS NO PORES. There is not a single line on her lovely face, including in some key places where faces typically need lines, creases, or wrinkles in order to facilitate movement. This is not a celebrity or recognizable person (as far as I know), and I believe that the choice to use a non-celebrity is an intentional one, made to coax us into believing that she’s more “like us.” Closer to the everywoman than Gwyneth or Beyonce. We are supposed to look at her and think, “Holy cats, if I wore that foundation, I bet I could look just like her.”


But we cannot look just like her. She doesn’t even look just like her. This is not what a regular human being looks like, even with gobs of professionally applied makeup. No one’s face is entirely free of pores, creases, hairs, blemishes, freckles, discoloration, scars, warts, beauty marks, wrinkles, spots, acne, and all of the other decidedly human things that characterize human faces. Some cosmetics companies use celebrity spokeswomen in their ads and airbrush them beyond recognition, and others take extremely young models and retouch the very life out of them. Both are bad choices.

Think of a 13-year-old woman looking at this ad. She is already ravaged by hormones and, likely, acne. She sees the face of this other young woman staring back at her and thinks, “How will I ever look like that?” She may buy the makeup in question, apply it, and find that she STILL doesn’t look as smooth and poreless as the ad. She may blame herself, her skin, her genetics, her inability to apply the stuff correctly. In all likelihood, she will internalize this perceived failure.

Think of a 53-year-old woman looking at this ad. She is constantly fed messages about her fading beauty and unsightly signs of aging. She sees the face of this young woman staring back at her and thinks, “I want to look like that.” She may buy the makeup in question, apply it, and find that she STILL doesn’t look as smooth and poreless as the ad. Because the ad is offering an impossibility. She may blame herself, her skin, her genetics, her inability to apply the stuff correctly. In all likelihood, she will internalize this perceived failure.

Choose a woman of any age and watch her fall down the same rabbit hole.

Makeup can highlight and downplay, enhance and mask. Makeup can change how your skin looks, how your face looks, and how you feel about your complexion and looks. But makeup cannot truly and fundamentally change anything about our faces or skin. Photoshop, however, can.

The next time you see an ad like this and find yourself lamenting your “bad skin,” gently remind yourself that the vast majority of the “good skin” you’re being shown has been digitally improved. Beyond what is possible in nature. Open up conversations with young women about these ads so they don’t start longing for botox and microderm before graduating from high school. Open up conversations with older women about how lines, creases, and wrinkles needn’t be sources of shame. These messages about what a woman’s face should look like are insidious ones. But we can help defuse them.

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36 Responses to “It’s OK to Have Pores”

  1. Monica H

    It is interesting. Examining these ads and how they make me feel, what I think is the worst about them is that the airbrushed photos give me NO basis upon which to judge the actual products. All makeup ads make their products look flawless. In most other industries, this would be considered false advertising, but somehow here it’s acceptable? One couldn’t create an ad for laundry detergent, do the ‘wash test’ common in these ads, and then Photoshop the result to remove all the stains without getting the FTC all interested.

    Also, since all makeup (apparently) produces the same result, how on earth can I choose what to buy?

    Then again, when my face doesn’t look like the face in the ad, I tend not to blame my skin. I tend to believe that the product did not work as advertised – although I do tend to point to my own makeup ignorance for having (apparently) chosen the ‘wrong one.’ Interesting, considering that with clothes I have the opposite experience – I blame my body first.

  2. Stace

    I think what is even worse is *knowing* that it is a false image, and yet still you fell bad when you look in the mirror because you know you can’t live up to it…


  3. A.B.

    Sally, I sometimes think that you live in my brain and post things occasionally that I need to hear.

    Thank you.

    • Sally

      You’re very welcome, A.B. Thanks for your kind words. And for letting me hang out inside your brain.

  4. Kristina

    I think it’s telling that the woman in the second ad you show hardly has any creases *in the palm of her hand*! What’s that all about? Sigh. It’ so hard, raising teenaged daughters when this stuff is so pervasive. I tell them it’s not for real, but what teen ever really believes what her parents tell her?

  5. bubu

    Thank you! I suffered bad skin and acne all through my teens and 20s and ads like this only made me feel worse. In addition to the self-esteem effects, I think it causes a lot of women to waste a lot of money trying to find solutions to perceived skin problems. I have found the three things that, by far, do the most for the quality of my skin, i.e,, give it that “glow” are a) drinking a lot of water, b) cardio, and c) eating a lot of raw veggies, esp carrots… and you can’t buy any of that in a bottle and put it on your face (well, I guess technically you can but I’m thinking it would not bee too pleasant or effective to smear V8 on every morning…)

  6. Debby

    Your timing is perfect, for A.B. and me.

    I went to the dermatologist last Friday. I’m not high-maintenance (even if I could afford all those facials, peels, serums, and creams, I’m not sure it would make that much difference), but I asked her to remove a tiny broken blood vessel on my nose, and some brown spots on my cheek. Once they heal, I feel like I’ll look so much better, though still not anywhere near what I am “supposed” to look like, because I do have visible pores, too many little brown spots to keep up with, and some redness in my cheeks from rosacea. I can put layers of concealer under my eyes to cover the purple, but my allergies win that war every time. None of these models ever have dark circles that I can tell.

    So, thank you for the healthy reminder that while it feels good to take care of the things that truly bother me, no amount of dermatologist visits will ever give me the skin in those ads. I have always wondered, if I had the budget of a lady who lunches, or a contestant in the Miss America pageant, how much better my skin could be, but maybe even then it wouldn’t be that different, and certainly not what appears in the ads.

  7. Wendi

    Very thought-provoking and encouraging post, Sally. Really, when did someone decide that we should look like we don’t have pores?? Aren’t pores a normal and healthy part of human skin? Why are they suddenly something to be ashamed of and hide? Weird. And the way they make people look like they have no lines or creases, like their face is a static mask — actually creepy if you think about it. I agree with the other commenter that it makes no sense that makeup and skincare companies get away with airbrushing and photoshopping, instead of showing realistic results. The consumer has no way to make an informed choice, and ends up wasting tons of money. To say nothing of the message that if you keep spending $$, you’ll eventually find the product that makes you look like this, and until you do, you’re ugly! Bleh. Why are men allowed to walk around with normal human faces and not feel ashamed of them? Confession: I don’t even wear makeup every day. 🙂

  8. Eleanorjane

    Great post and a good reminder that comparisons are odious. I look at my face in the sunlight and see the wrinkles, blotches, sun spots etc. and I think they are a bit worse than other women my age as I’m from New Zealand which has very harsh sun compared to the more gentle sun in England. But still… I am 36 so there’s no reason why I should be line-free.

  9. Claire

    Hey, you know what’s kinda weird… the girl in the second ad looks like the model in the little misikko ad square running down the right side of the page…. you can even view their faces together on the screen right now while this is the top post.

    Ha! Love the title of this article. Hope the message gets through and spreads….

  10. ClaraT

    This is poignantly illustrated in the Dove evolution video: Like you said, Sally, even the models don’t look like that…
    Stace brings up a good point. It is hard to buy makeup when you really have no idea what it looks like on a real person. And don’t get me started on the use of false eyelashes in mascara ads. Shameful.

  11. Trystan (the CorpGoth)

    The images & even the language (“magic” “nude” “mask”) all serve to heighten the unreal perfection. It’s crazy & so pervasive. Every single ad & editorial spread is filled with this idealized idea of what skin should be — porcelain pore-less, wrinkle-free, hairless, spot-free, one-color skin. So bizarre.

    • LIz

      Remeber the Dove campaign to promote a product that would give women perfect-looking underarms?
      It made me laugh and groan at the same time–it was an utterly ridiculous body part to target, yet I’m sure it started a lot of worry about the ugliness of our underarms.

  12. Lisa

    I didn’t even notice the creaseless hands until another reader pointed them out in the comments. Eep!

    Some context for the Maybelline ad: Maybelline is one of the few remaining cosmetics companies that always uses models, never celebrity spokespeople. So even though the young woman is not a recognizable face, I don’t see it as promoting an attainable ideal for the average woman or girl either.

    That being said, all this airbrushing is definitely disquieting and it does affect how girls and women perceive themselves. I like to think of myself as relatively well-adjusted and confident, but I remember being 8 and poring over the Caucasian faces in Cover Girl ads wondering why I don’t look like that. And that was before the Internet and 24/7 exposure to media images of unattainable beauty standards! I’d hate to think what the average tween/teen is up against these days.

  13. Chris

    The women in these ads remind me of the perfect body. perfect face female avatars. The difference is that everyone knows that the avatars are computer generated characters. The ads start out with real, live, humans but the end results are computer generated characters also.

  14. jan

    I gave up make up and even deodorants decades ago. Mostly we are buying the feeling that we are accomplishing something, not the actual accomplishment. One time I said I had started to react to the ingredients in cosmetics and a lady said that obviously my body had changed. Our bodies change over years but the cosmetic you buy may not have the same ingredients in it that the bottle right next to it on the shelf contains. Our bodies change over years but cosmetic ingredients can change in the blink of an eye.

  15. romy

    7 or 8 years ago my father told me that one of his co-worked, who used to work for a magazine and she mentioned that more than 90% of the pictures on that magazine (editorial, ads anything) was retouched using Photoshop. I guess now it’s easily 100%. It always annoyed me that anti age creams use young women on their adds, but last girl on the new Q10 cream from “N” looked 16 years old.

  16. marsha calhoun

    Coincidentally, I needed to buy more moisturizer/sunscreen today for my husband (at my urging, he started using mine after his fair skin became very dry), and I was resolved to purchase paraben- and phthalate-free stuff instead of what I had been using. I found some that had good reviews, and stood in line behind a woman, possibly 10 years younger than I, who appeared to be buying enough make-up of all kinds to last several lifetimes. Her face appeared to have no pores, because it was completely and artfully masked by foundation (it did not seem that she was hiding blemishes so much as seeking to achieve the look of the models above), and when she spoke her face hardly moved at all. But she didn’t look young; she looked strange, and even stranger in profile when the odd smoothness and stillness of the skin was contrasted with the inevitable wrinkles at her chin line and throat. I was impatient because I had only one item, and I found myself wondering how much time and money and possibly surgery she had spent to achieve such a peculiar effect. I felt catty, but also a bit sad that she felt it was necessary to totally hide whatever her natural visage might be. I’m still a little disconcerted by the experience, but slightly cheered that I feel no need to obscure my real self, warts and all, from the view of others before feeling fit to be seen. That’s progress, I think. Now, if we can just let Photoshop go up in a puff of smoke, never to mislead again . . .

      • marsha calhoun

        It’s true, I don’t know what she felt. I was sort of putting myself in her place; if I spent a lot of time and money so very carefully creating a visage such as hers, it would be because I thought it necessary to do so. Perhaps she wasn’t hiding anything (although that was an effect of her actions); perhaps she derived joy from decorating herself as she did. You are right; I really don’t know.

  17. Jen

    I think it’s hilarious (but also sad) that both ads seems to be claiming make-up that looks like real skin. “Don’t mask me” and “Bare skin perfecting make-up”–ha. I would like to know a good brand that covers up acne and scarring, though. I feel like I’ve tried them all, and Bare Minerals comes the closest, but I can’t afford the price.

    • Lisa

      Jen, when it comes to covering up blemishes and small dark spots, I’ve fared better with colour correcting concealers layered under a regular foundation or BB cream, instead of depending on foundation or powder to do all the heavy lifting. A green corrector can counteract redness, while yellow counterbalances purplish tones like undereye circles and scars. I’m using the Lise Watier colour corrector wheel, which has everything in one pot (and instructions printed underneath on how to use each shade!).

  18. Copy Czarina

    As a 59-year-old who has been working on magazines for 34 years, I should know better than to fall for cosmetics and their claims, but I still do, just as I did in junior high. And just as I blame my body rather than the clothes when things don’t fit, I blame my face rather than the products.

  19. Allison

    The crazy thing about this is that I have never seen a person in real life wearing foundation makeup that looks natural. It always looks the same way it does when I apply I it to myself – like a skimpy coat of skin-colored paint. Instead of creating the look of smooth, “perfect” skin, it always looks like my regular “imperfect” skin covered up badly. It probably does the trick when viewed from far away, or on camera. My guess is that the manufacturers have to Photoshop their ads, because the products kind of suck.

  20. Tiffany

    “Open up conversations with older women about how lines, creases, and wrinkles needn’t be sources of shame.”
    You know–if you don’t like conversations about your body art, then don’t think that “older women” want to have conversations about wrinkles. I’m a grown woman and it’s my face and I can do what I like with it. None of your business what I chose to do with it.

  21. Sabrina

    Thanks for this post and conversation, Sally!

    In addition to the concern about the false images of bodies and complexions portrayed by many cosmetics advertisements, I think it’s also a huge concern that the ingredients used in beauty products are not systematically tested for safety in the U.S. Here’s an article that elaborates on the issue:

    The Skin Deep Database maintained by the Environmental Working Group includes helpful information about many brands and products. For those products that aren’t yet represented, users can help by contributing ingredient information found on the labels, and can still use the database to learn about many of the specific ingredients listed.

    It’s also worthwhile to check out the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics for news and more resources:

    As to Marsha Calhoun’s suggestion that we can “let Photoshop go up in a puff of smoke”… I hope not! I use Photoshop for so many purposes unrelated to body image at all… Like designing landscapes and sharing my visions of them with others, creating educational materials, creating fliers for bellydance events, and much more! Please remember that the program is a set of tools, and it’s the ways in which different folks choose to use them that make the difference.

    • marsha calhoun

      You are right – blaming the tool just sidesteps the problem; I was being facetious, I had hoped.

  22. LIz

    When stuck in a long line at the grocery store, I tend to check out the tabloids’ candid pictures of celebrities (I don’t buy, I just scan).
    Without gobs of makeup, special lighting, and hair stylists following them around to fix every stray lock of hair, celebrities look pretty much like the rest of us.
    Now I know those tabloid candids are generally taken by papparazzi, so they represent a terrible invasion of privacy, but they do point up the illusions and unrealistic expectations that are forced on us by a celebrity-obsessed, consumerist culture.
    I rarely buy fashion magazines anymore for that reason–they are full of celebrity “looks” that are made-up, styled and photographed to present a standard that is unrealistic and unattainable.

  23. K

    Thank you for this, just like thank you for the photos of your “what I look like when I wake up” series showing pre-styled skin and hair. I don’t feel comfortable enough to post there to the world yet myself, but I hope to get to that comfort level someday. I find photos of people without the professional styling, lighting, and photoshopping so refreshingly real and relatable.

    Even though I know that these beauty ads are all photoshopped, they still affect me negatively. They affect my perception of my own face, they set a norm in my new geographical environment, they affect the financial stability of friends, and sometimes, they even threaten the health of friends.

    On my own skin & geographic cultural differences:
    I grew up in an area (NH & VT) where weathered skin, no face peels, and no to minimal makeup was the norm, but now that I’ve moved to an area (VA) where presenting less than perfect skin is not only a social faux pas but a professional one as well. Quite frankly, this new and constant pressure to look like I have flawless, smooth skin is tiring, and it can make me feel bad about my skin, even though objectively I know it shouldn’t. My skin is also worse than most: it’s red and splotchy, due to battling rosecea, cystic acne, patches of eczema, and yes, very large pores that you can clearly see from several feet away. I’ve found no amount of skin care or makeup can dramatically change the way I look, so for the most part, I’ve stopped trying to fix it as much cosmetically and only fix what hurts or is important medically. I didn’t like how much money I was spending trying to fix these cosmetic problems, and moreover, and I felt like I was hidden behind a thick mask.

    On beauty threatening finances:
    The pressure of beauty ads also make me feel sad for my friends’ (and more broadly, women’s at large) financial security. I have several friends and coworkers who say they spend large amounts of money on beauty products and then talk about how they are in debt or living paycheck to paycheck. I don’t think it’s right that women in our culture should think it’s critically important to spend money they don’t have, or money that could be used to start a savings account, on what I’m told can be a couple thousand dollars of makeup/treatments a year.

    On beauty threatening health:
    The cultural pressure of this “poreless look” also worried me when one of my best friends recently had a series of intense, very painful, very expensive laser treatments on her face to “minimize the look of her pores, strip away redness in her skin, and remove wrinkles.” These lasers purposely burned away 12 layers of her skin and possibly some blood vessels.. Her skin was so raw she was not allowed to go outside during the daylight for 6 weeks, making me worried not only for her health but also her lack of socialization during this time. My friend is only 28 and she has apparently been worried about her skin since 12. (Again, I hypothesize that where we grew up has a huge influence on what we think women on varying ages look like; this friend grew up near LA/Hollywood, where apparently most everyone tries to look more or less like Barbie — no pores, no wrinkles, no blemishes, no birthmarks, to say nothing of the ubiquitous non-medical surgeries and Botox injections all over the body to freeze wrinkles & sweat glands.

    So thank you for this post, and for your website. It gives me a needed dose of reality amongst my current settings.

    (By the way, I do not mean to suggest that women/people should not wear makeup or spend whatever amount of money they choose on their makeup/beauty treatments. I know friends who find makeup to be a creative and fun outlet; I don’t. I mean to say that for me personally, I find lots of makeup/ chemical peels/ laser treatments/ Botox/ the desire to look like one doesn’t age strange and unsettling.)

    I also think that if there wasn’t so much pressure & guilt tied into the billion-dollar beauty industry that women would be able to spend their money on items that they would enjoy more in the long-term, as opposed to items that they feel pressured to slather on their faces & that don’t even work as promised, all to fit into a cultural norm of what modern women’s faces are “supposed” to look like.

  24. Shaye

    I had a revelatory moment several years ago. I’d been out at the mall, and had applied a bunch of makeup at Sephora – no real intent to buy, just playing around, but always with the idea in the back of my mind that I might find some miracle product I couldn’t live without. It looked all right, but not amazing.

    I got home and washed my face for bed, and the thought popped into my head unbidden: “Thank god, I look so much prettier without all that junk on my face.” I actually physically recoiled, because it’s not something I’d have ever imagined thinking. I always wear makeup. Every day. My mom taught me that that’s what you do, so even when I worked in a factory in the summer and I knew all my makeup would sweat off within 5 minutes, I still did a little foundation and mascara.

    It hasn’t stopped me wearing makeup, but I wear far less. I skip liquid foundation and wear mineral makeup. I mostly wear lip balm. I rarely wear eye makeup that’s not mascara. Even my “fancy” face is more minimal than it used to be. I still love the fun aspect of “playing” with makeup but when I feel the desire to play I have to remind myself that I probably wouldn’t wear whatever I bought and if I, going out, I’ll feel better in a face that lets ME take center stage, not my makeup. I think it looks great on other people but heavy makeup’s not for me, even if I do have pores you could see from space.

  25. Cas

    Great article. Agree its so frustrating how we know they’re fake but still get upset or feel let down we can’t look like.

    Over the years I’ve done these little experiments with myself. Let’s call them make up fasts. It’s a reminder to myself that my face fine just the way it is. When I go out it’s me who makes me sexy not my red lips. It’s me who makes me look bright and shiny not my new awesome shimmer I just got at sephora. At first it’s almost like I’m an addict weaning myself off of it but before long I forget about it. Eventually I’ll start wearing some mascara there or blush here therefore the makeup becomes more about adornment and self expression than a chore or social requirement for me.

  26. Alison

    Your post bought tears to my eyes. My huge pores and oily skin have been as much as a constant bane to me as my +++bust.

    I’ve always blamed my inability and general ignorance of how to expertly apply makeup for never really being able to hide my enlarged pores. Various skincare brands have helped clear up the pimples but there’s nothing that can be done about my pores. For me I find wearing makeup irritates my skin and makes it more pimple-prone; could be because I try to use it to fill in the pores for a more smooth look. I use a powder most days to try and counter shine but thankfully my workplace is more than happy for people to skip the makeup.

    Like A.B. and many others above, this post felt like it was written for me. Thank-you so much for the way you approach all your posts, even if I don’t comment on them all I really do appreciate them.