We all know first impressions are important. As a college student, I think I make literally hundreds of them each year. From first days in classes, to joining different organizations around campus, I meet a lot of people. With first impressions, I believe everyone has their go-to ice breaker topic such as an interesting hobby, talent, or collection. For me, it’s my vitiligo.
What is a vitiligo, you ask? According to Merriam-Webster, vitiligo is “a skin disorder manifested by smooth white spots on various parts of the body.” On my body, vitiligo is present solely on my face; however, I have met many people in my life who have it on other areas of their body such as their arms or legs. Because my vitiligo is on my face, everyone sees it. Sure, I could try to conceal it with makeup products, but that doesn’t really help.
I often get asked if I was born with vitiligo, the answer to which is no. My vitiligo first began sometime around the age of 6-7. It started small — a little spot on my upper lip — but it quickly began to spread. My parents took me to a few different dermatologists, and though I was young at the time, I remember being prescribed various creams and pills to make it “go away.”
The one thing each doctor failed to tell me or my parents was what was wrong with me. One doctor even told my parents I had suffered an allergic reaction to fish. I don’t think I ever ate fish at that age. My parents just assumed the doctor was correct, and I had eaten something at school. To this day, I really don’t believe any of that nonsense and eat fish of all kinds regularly.
Although it is no longer this way, my vitiligo once covered about 80 percent of my face including the entirety of my right eyebrow and half of my left one (yes, the vitiligo spread to the hair follicles and my eyebrow hairs were actually white). Today, thanks to medical assistance, my vitiligo covers about 40 percent of my face and less than half of my right eyebrow. It took medicines from a variety of different creams, home remedies, ginormous capsules, diet changes, and even UV light treatments, which put me at an even greater risk of skin cancer.
It wasn’t until I began to see a local dermatologist in Florence, Alabama who prescribed the UV light treatments to me that I was able to put a name on “what was wrong with me.” Vitiligo. This treatment occurred when I was a sophomore in high school, age 16. It was then I learned I wasn’t alone.
No cause is cited when it comes to vitiligo. It just happens, in a sense. According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, in the United States, 1 to 2 million people have the disorder. It also affects races and sexes equally. It can also run in families, though it is not necessary. In my family, one of my first cousins also has vitiligo.
Oh, and it’s not contagious. Hanging out with me doesn’t mean your skin will start to change color (unless we’re outside in the sun and you tan or burn as easily as I do.)
I sunburn, but only on the part of my face with vitiligo. No, it never seems to tan. Many previous doctors have told me to try to spend time in the sun when I am on various medicines or wearing certain creams, and maybe that has been the reason my vitiligo became smaller, but it could take many more types of treatments to really make it “go away.”
Although the UV treatments I had done when I was 16 were very helpful and my face showed great signs of improvement, they were expensive and painful. Imagine getting purposely sunburned twice a week, because that’s exactly what was happening to me. There were days when I couldn’t open my mouth properly, or play Trombone during band. Although I had a perfect attendance record, there were many days I didn’t want to face my colleagues and friends at school. It was pretty miserable.
But my vitiligo has not made me weak. In fact, I have grown more confident over time because of it. Once I stopped having treatments done, I made a personal decision to smile more and not worry about the way I look. Although I try to lose weight and wear makeup, I don’t care about my vitiligo anymore. Or at least, I don’t let it affect the way I feel about my appearance.
Unfortunately, the world doesn’t always agree with my confidence. In the past, many school picture companies have photoshopped my pictures without me or my parents requesting the alterations. (Because of copyrights with the photo companies, I won’t share those photographs here.) I even had a substitute in high school that constantly told me how pretty she thought I would be if I could cover up the “white spots” on my face. She even offered to take me shopping to buy makeup products that may help conceal my vitiligo. Although I was naive at the time and thought she was being nice, looking back on it today, I wish I could have told her how rude I thought she was being.
While vitiligo is not a deadly disease, or even painful for that matter, the way people treat me, speak to me, or even look at me occasionally hurt. I’ve grown a lot in the last 22 years and even more since I first got vitiligo when I was 6-7, but the world can be a cruel place when you look different.
I am happy with the way I look. I wear makeup, but I don’t try to use it to mask my vitiligo, because I think it makes me one of a kind and beautiful in my own way.