If you’re not one to believe in fate, then I would say you were a lot like me when I was 18 years old before anything ever happened with my skin.
I was in my senior year of high school sitting in my anatomy class when my teacher assigned a project on skin disorders. Rolling my eyes at just another task I had to complete before my diploma, I picked vitiligo. I’d seen bits of vitiligo-esque discoloration on people’s hands before, but other than that, I knew nothing of what I’d soon learn was an incurable disorder. I spent an entire week on the project looking up pictures, scouring Google Scholar. I learned that when someone begins to show signs of vitiligo, it’s because their is skin losing its ability to re-create pigmented cells. I presented the project, took an A, and released my inner hypochondriac from her duties.
Long before vitiligo was a part of my life (or my school’s curriculum), I was bullied a lot by girls my age about how I looked. I always had this mindset that I was the bottom tier choice for any guy I met. I somehow still managed to date someone for two years in high school. He was a truly kind and genuine person and he helped me not worry about what other people said about me. But when we both went to college and went our separate ways, my attitude slowly reverted back to my old way of thinking.
Two years later, I had just moved back home for the summer before my junior year of college. I was getting dressed when I noticed two pale blotches on my stomach. Was this a birthmark I had never noticed? Did I do a really awful job applying tanning lotion from the weekend prior? It could have been, but it wasn’t. That’s how vitiligo works, you see; it just pops up casually overnight anywhere it chooses to on your naked body.
Typically, you head straight to Google to look for all the information you can when you find an abnormality on your skin. But with my research paper still fresh in my mind, I knew all the information that I needed.
After going to a dermatologist, my worst fear as a 20-year-old woman was confirmed: Indeed, I had vitiligo. Now, every time I passed someone with the disorder on the street I instantly felt as though my fate was inevitable: I couldn’t shake the image that I had the potential to have blotches cover my entire body and face. I was certain there couldn’t be a man out there who could overlook my appearance, much less could handle the emotional baggage that comes with it all.
The one positive part was that because the vitiligo crossed my stomach, it was something that could be treated with a laser. But attempting to beam a laser at the blotches away didn’t mean I would be vitiligo-free. It was just a shot in the dark that my skin might begin to gain back its pigmentation. The thing with vitiligo is that as your pigment cells start to die off or stop functioning altogether, the skin turns totally white. It can happen anywhere on your body, including your stomach, legs, hands, and even your face, but not all areas of your body are treatable. Vitiligo is seen in more than 200,000 cases per year, and it more commonly begins in adults in their mid-20s to 30s. It started to become hard not to dread my future, knowing my vitiligo could get worse. There was no part of my body that was safe. I later learned the disease is symmetric and that once there is a spot on one side of your body, it typically replicates on the other side.
Every time I looked in the mirror I saw a different person. A woman who was defeated and tired of trying to be beautiful.
So I started laser treatments stat: They only took about five minutes every Tuesday and Thursday before class, but they left my skin extremely itchy and blistered for days after my treatments.
It was hard enough learning to accept my body as it was—trying to adjust and heal in this seemingly new skin—let alone letting someone else see my body. Whenever a boy came into the picture, it was hard to keep the vitiligo a secret, especially as my stomach looked like it was healing from first-degree burns. My skin disease began to control not only what I looked like, but also how I viewed the desirability of my body in general. Every time a guy said hi to me at a bar, I started hysterically thinking, do you think he will care if one day my entire skin is covered in white blotches? My anxiety and insecurities got the best of me—I knew the reality of ever holding a functioning relationship with someone was far off into the future.
By the end of my junior year of college, my vitiligo was controlling every aspect of my life: how I lived, where my thoughts trailed off to, and how I handled the relationships around me. My mom always told me the right boy, “wouldn’t care what I looked like and would love me anyway.” As cliché as it sounds, I knew she was right. But more importantly, I knew going into a relationship right away would mean wanting them to heal me when what I really needed was to heal myself.
Of course, I would take time to really accept my body, discoloration and all. In college, I started going to yoga regularly to focus on myself and build a strong mind and body. The more I focused on my internal health, the easier it became to feel as though my skin disease didn’t exist.
I stopped seeking laser treatments three years ago, shortly after my boyfriend and I started dating. It wasn’t as though I had given up or I thought I looked particularly sexy with vitiligo. I simply decided that life goes on even with a skin disorder, and I knew that I was just wasting time by consuming my life with what I was supposed to look like. Of course, my partner also lifted me up and helped me look at myself in a more appreciative light, but in the end, the self-acceptance had to come from me.
Somehow, I believe there was a reason I randomly chose vitiligo that day in class nearly five years ago. My self-confidence back then was slim to none. And while it took getting diagnosed with an incurable skin disorder to come to the realization that I’m beautiful, I think it ultimately helped me value my relationship with my partner and my relationship with myself. I know I won’t wake up thinking I’m beautiful every day, but at least I’ll wake up, look in the mirror, and see that the only person whose opinion matters is my own.
Here at Byrdie, we know that beauty is way more than braid tutorials and mascara reviews. Beauty is identity. Our hair, our facial features, our bodies: They can reflect culture, sexuality, race, even politics. We needed somewhere on Byrdie to talk about this stuff, so… welcome to The Flipside (as in the flipside of beauty, of course!), a dedicated place for unique, personal, and unexpected stories that challenge our society’s definition of “beauty”. Here you’ll find cool interviews with LGBTQ+ celebrities, vulnerable essays about beauty standards and cultural identity, feminist meditations on everything from thigh brows to eyebrows, and more. The ideas our writers are exploring here are new, so we’d love for you, our savvy readers, to participate in the conversation too. Be sure to comment your thoughts (and share them on social media with the hashtag #TheFlipsideOfBeauty). Because everybody gets to be heard on The Flipside.
Opening Image: Amy Deanna