I was diagnosed (for want of a better word) with vitiligo when I was just four. After falling over and scraping my knees one too many times, I began to develop white patches of skin in the place of the scabs. Thinking they were just scars at first, my mum didn’t really think much of it until they started to grow. That’s when she took me to my GP, who was very dismissive, and after some stern persuasion from my mum I was sent to a dermatologist.
The dermatologist confirmed that I had vitiligo, and ran through what that might mean for me with my mum. Vitiligo is an autoimmune disease and skin condition thought to be brought on by stress or trauma, but this has never been proven so no one really knows exactly what switches it on. According to the British Skin Foundation, vitiligo is where the melanocytes – the cells that make your skin’s pigmentation/melanin – are inactive but still present. It affects about 1% of the world’s population and can start at any age, but will usually develop before someone reaches 20 years old.
As I was four, I didn’t really know what was going on and nor did I care – it wasn’t until the patches started to show up elsewhere that I really even noticed. I’ve got an olive skin tone and I’ve always tanned easily so, when summer came about, all of my friends started to take notice of my skin and so did I. “What’s wrong with your skin?” They’d ask. “You look patchy like a cow or a dog.” They’d say. Kids don’t really understand how hurtful their words can be, they’re just kids, but being asked nearly every day what was wrong with me caused me to develop a hatred for my skin condition – which, in hindsight, probably made it worse.
“Vitiligo, especially if it’s on the face and hands, can be really debilitating psychologically.” Dr Chopra from The London Dermatology Centre told BBC Asian Network. Dr Chopra said that some patients express how other people think the condition is contagious, and that he’s heard stories of parents telling their children not to play with kids with vitiligo in case they catch it.
Being bullied for my skin as a little girl meant I was constantly worried and concerned about it being on show, and felt the need to cover it up at all times to be ‘normal’. I’ve always suffered from anxiety too, so constantly overthinking and panicking about things definitely didn’t (and doesn’t) help the spread of my patches.
When I got older and went to secondary school the bullying stopped but my self consciousness didn’t. I can remember putting foundation on my knees and wearing nude tights so that I could wear skirts like all the other girls and not worry about my knees being on show. I chose long-sleeved shirts over short sleeves so I could cover the patches that had suddenly sprouted on my elbows.
At around the age of 12 my mum decided to take me back to see a dermatologist. She could see how vitiligo was affecting me and she wanted to see if there was anything we could do. It was then that I was told about UVA/UVB light treatment (or phototherapy) which I started and continued to have once a week for two years. It worked in certain areas that I had patches, such as my hips and knees, but wasn’t as effective on places closer to the bone such as my hands or feet. There is no cure for vitiligo. Although treatment may be helpful in restoring the colour, it cannot prevent its spread or recurrence.
After that my confidence came back a bit but I more so began to accept my skin condition for what it was and soon came to the realisation that it was what made me unique. Instead of seeing it as something to hide and cover up, I started to show it off proudly. I came across Winnie Harlow around this time too and she inspired me so much. She was called similar names as a child and yet there she was; this stunning supermodel that oozed confidence.
I’ve even had the privilege of being photographed by Brock Elbank, a photographer renowned for campaigns on Instagram and for documenting people’s differences in various photography series. Back in 2017 I reached out to Brock for an interview. I was doing my journalism degree at university and was compiling research for my dissertation (which funnily enough was about how skin conditions are represented in the media) and he agreed to speak to me while he took pictures of my patches. I owe much of my confidence to talented people like Brock. The vitiligo series he produced made me feel normal and special all at once.
Vitiligo is more accepted by society today. People might not necessarily know what it is but they’re more likely to have seen it before, whether that’s on a model on their favourite clothing site or on someone walking down the street. Don’t get me wrong, I still get people staring at my skin (particularly my hands as that’s where it’s most noticeable) and giving me dirty looks. Others will inquisitively ask what’s wrong with my skin, but instead of cowering away as I used to I will quite happily educate them now.
World Vitiligo Day means a lot to me. It’s something I celebrate in my own way every year (usually with a post on social media) since coming across it back in 2016 through Instagram. It’s the online community of people with vitiligo that I find lifts me up when I’m feeling insecure about my skin. From the Facebook support groups and social media advocates, to the people I see on TV with it, it all means so much to me now and to the little girl I once was.