Vitiligo: A Personal Account

I was probably about 6 or 7 when I received my first comment about my condition. My family was on vacation in Freeport, Mich., and a boy I had been swimming with asked if I was wearing eye makeup. I said no, and wondered what he meant. That’s when I first noticed my condition. There were white patches around my eyes and mouth, and on my knees and elbows. Over the years my condition worsened. Most of the time, I would skin a knee or elbow, and the area would heal white. Occasionally, white patches would appear on their own, like the ones on my lower back and on the back of my neck.

As cliched as it sounds, I was literally uncomfortable in my own skin. It made me feel awkward and uncomfortable, especially in the summer. The rest of my body would tan, making my white patches more prominent. Wearing shorts and T-shirts was an ordeal. But for the most part, people didn’t notice, and if they did they never said so. When someone did question my appearance, I laughed it off. I even made up elaborate stories in my head to explain my condition in case anyone asked. My cousins would joke and say I had “Michael Jackson skin disease,” as they called it. Outside, I laughed, but inside I was deeply offended.

The way I looked definitely increased my timidity. At age 11, I started wearing makeup to disguise the white patches on my face. I constantly checked myself in mirrors, making sure my cover-up looked natural in all lighting. In the summer I avoided pools, afraid the water would wash away my improved complection. I continued this behavior for about five years. Eventually I gained confidence in my appearance, and at age 16 refused to apply my mask any longer. Though this was liberating, I still was unaware of my condition’s origin or name. I wouldn’t discover that information until college.

For some reason, it had never occurred to me to look up my condition, or see a doctor about it. To me, it was just something I lived with. After my freshman year of college, I was back at home, playing around on the computer. It suddenly struck me to look up my condition. Not expecting any results, I searched for “white patches on skin.” And that’s when I realized I had vitiligo.

Vitiligo is a skin disorder in which the cells that produce pigment in the skin, mucous membranes and retina are destroyed, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases’s website. As a result, patches of the skin (and often the hair growing on those patches), turns white. There is no known cause of vitiligo, but several theories have been suggested. Some doctors think that melanocytes (pigment-producing cells) in skin start destroying themselves, or that the body forms antibodies that destroy these cells.

Between 40 million and 50 million people worldwide are affected by this condition. Vitiligo is generally hereditary; however, I know of no one in my family with it besides me. And vitiligo is an equal-opportunity disorder, meaning that it affects each sex and race equally. The severity of vitiligo varies; while some people, like myself, have patches in certain areas (like elbows, knees, and ankles), others may present the condition on the majority of the body. And though this condition is almost entirely superficial, its effects may not be.

People with vitiligo may feel utterly self-conscious and awkward in social situations. Though it is not life-threatening or injurious to one’s physical health, vitiligo can have serious effects on self-image and self-esteem. Luckily, several medical procedures have been developed to cope with this disorder. Some include creams, UVA light therapies, depigmentation of unaffected skin, skin grafts and tattooing.

I have not approached any of the above methods to improve my condition, nor do I expect to. While vitiligo affected my self confidence growing up, I have since learned to accept my looks and move on. I rarely think about my condition, and my appearance has not deterred me from social or personal relationships. It took time, but I am finally satisfied with my looks.

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