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What Having Vitiligo Has Taught Me—& How I Learned To Love My Skin
“Why do you have those white things on your knees?” Asked an inquisitive filter-free five year old—a classmate of mine—unknowingly drawing attention to something I hadn’t contemplated before, but something I would soon wish could disappear.
It turns out, not only did the “white things” on my knees not disappear—they grew and eventually started appearing all over my body. Vitiligo is an auto-immune disease where your body basically mistakes your pigment cells for invaders and wipes them out, leaving colorless patches of skin. I had inherited Vitiligo from my grandmother. Seeing her skin didn’t really affect me. I barely noticed it; it was just part of who she was. But on me, it was all I could see and all I thought that others would see of me, too.
When I was 12, I went with my mother to a fancy department store and bought “leg makeup”; thick, taupe-colored, water-resistant goop that I painted over my white patches to appear “acceptable” at the beach. I can remember looking down at my knees and being blown away by how normal they looked with the makeup on them. I finally had “normal” knees—my 12-year-old self’s dream come true. I used my leg makeup every day that summer, happily concealing (what I thought to be) my “abnormality” from the world. Then September came and I had to say goodbye to short shorts and hello to skirts with knee high socks (my school uniform). I soon found out that the makeup rubbed off on my socks, exposing my charade.
My dream solution came as a prescribed immunomodulating cream that returned the color to my knees, and kept them that way for about 10 years. But during that time other parts of my skin began to fade in color. The first entire part of my body to have the color disappear from it was my face. Concealer did the trick, but I was beginning to panic—what if it kept spreading?
Over the next five years, until age 27, my skin disease ate its way down my arms, chest, back and legs creating a calico effect—much like that of an animal. I didn’t know how to conceal it, so I hid it under long layers of clothing and shielded myself from the sun, excluding myself from fun activities that meant I had to be half-clothed (such as going out on the boat or basically anything in the summer).
Because I couldn’t exactly be a hermit in a snowsuit—I have a job and it’s above 70° for three quarters of the year here in Bermuda—of course people see my skin, and of course it draws attention or an inquisitive look. It’s just different. And it’s taken me a lot of effort to get my brain thinking that different doesn’t mean bad.
This past year has been quite a brain journey, fighting the struggle for perfection against the urge to just let go. I admit I’ve not quite let it go completely, but I’m a lot closer to accepting it than I was a year ago. And I’ve come to realize some valuable things about life along the way because of it.
1. Nature is beautifully diverse and intricately patterned, and we as humans are no exception. Last year, when my tan began to cause my “markings” to stand out, my fiancé remarked that I resembled a cheetah. Furious, I asked him how he could say that about me when he knew I was having trouble accepting my skin. But over time I’ve come to take it as a compliment. Why should we marvel at the beautiful patterns on animals and plants and yet feel disgust if our own skin shares the same resemblance? Freckles, dark birth marks, even hair color make us so wonderfully unique, often forming shapes or patterns and creating beautiful effects that make us who we are. We’ve been looking at our “flaws” all wrong.
2. We were made to stand out in our own way. From an early age I wanted to stand out and draw attention to my looks but at the same time appear normal. I thought pretty eye shadow would help me do this. In fact I even covered up the white patches (which looked more lilac than white due to their placement behind my eyes) with eyeshadow – when I had natural eyeshadow! The thing is that my skin condition isn’t a big deal—it doesn’t restrict my life in any way—it’s just something I viewed as an imperfection. “Imperfections” are part of who we are. While I had white patches on my knees, a friend of mine had a face full of freckles which she hated, using concealer to make them less visible. I love a face with freckles, they have so much personality. Why are we hiding instead of celebrating what makes us stand out?
3. Differences do not divide, but bring people together. Feeling self conscious about my skin made me isolate myself. But when on vacation earlier this year in the Azores, we visited the natural pools, so everyone was in swim suits. I saw a man about my age with vitiligo on his stomach. I almost jumped for joy. We shared a smile and went our own ways but that moment never left me. I felt connected to a complete stranger, 2,225 miles away from home.
Back in 2014, I heard about Winnie Harlow—a contestant on America’s Next Top Model (a show I always dreamed of being on) and felt a sense of camaraderie with her. She is renowned for having such beautiful, unique skin. To think I share something with someone who is celebrated for having vitiligo makes me feel special and less alone.
Different doesn’t mean bad. I used to stare at my skin and ask, why? Why did I have to inherit this curse? Why couldn’t I have smooth-toned skin like every one else? All I saw was my skin; it took over my vision and thoughts in every situation. I thought people would be afraid to touch me, that they would think it was contagious. I began to draw attention to it constantly, thinking if I pointed it out in conversations, the elephant in the room would be addressed. But in reality, there was no elephant. There was no contagion to be spread. Just a girl with a variance in skin tone. And it wasn’t bad. It was just different.
Also by Nea: Vegan Swedish Chocolate Cardamom Rolls
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