Written by Lea Antonio, As Told to Haley Levine
I was diagnosed with Vitiligo at the age of 26. For years I have struggled with low self-esteem and self-doubt. Now, 15 years later, I am able to accept this condition and even thrive thanks to the support of my partner, the vitiligo community, and most importantly, my child.
Dealing with the diagnosis
When I first saw the vitiligo patches on my body, I didn’t know their name, but I knew what it was. Both my mom and aunt have the condition. I went to a dermatologist, and he told me that there was no cure and that the vitiligo would probably spread all over my body. I left her office in tears. I was young, confident, and enjoying everything. I loved going to the beach and showing off my body in cute little dresses. Now, I was afraid to do that. I felt helpless and shocked.
To make matters worse, I felt that no one could help me doubt myself. Every time I told someone how I felt, they’d belittle it: “Oh, you’re young and beautiful, and you should just be grateful it’s not cancer.” Sure, they meant well, but I wanted people to listen to me and understand how I felt. I refused to look in the mirror and would often cry until I fell asleep at night asking, “Why me?”
I felt that any time I tried to express my feelings to someone and make them understand, they would slap me in the face. I was crying for help, but no one seemed to be able to hear me. Even the therapist I once spoke to dismissed my feelings when I explained my reluctance to wear a bathing suit to the beach. Her response: What about people who are overweight? They wear swimwear all the time.”
Face my doubts face to face
I was stuck in feelings of doubt and insecurity for many years. The vitiligo made me feel unattractive and self-conscious. I have isolated myself from any activities showing my score. At my wedding, for example, while all of my guests were wearing cute little sundresses, I wore them in long pants. Then I became a mother. By then, the vitiligo had spread all over my legs. At first, I was so self-conscious that I
Refused to take my kids to the beach or pool. But then I felt like the worst mother in the world. I decided then and there that I would not allow vitiligo to get in the way of raising my children. The first time I took her to the pool, I got scared. I was convinced everyone was staring at me (though in hindsight, they might not have been). Then I saw how much fun my kids were having, and those feelings faded.
A few months later, I was on the playground with my 4 year old son. I had decided to wear capri pants that showed me vitiligo. Another child went to him and asked him what was wrong with his mother’s legs. My son looked at him and simply said, “Nothing. God made it that way.” A few weeks later, I was hugging my daughter in her crib when she said to me, “Mom, I love your clouds.” It took me a few moments to realize that she was referring to my vitiligo. It made me realize: My kids haven’t seen vitiligo. They just saw their mother. If they can accept my body and my spots and everything, I can too.
My kids aren’t the only ones who helped me get over my doubts. About 6 years ago, I started researching more about Vitiligo online. I discovered the website Living Dappled, and it has changed my life. I saw pictures of women who looked like me, and I read their stories, which were very similar to mine. Then two years later, I got an email that Living Dappled was looking for models to take a photo. I signed up – and it was one of the best things I’ve ever done. I put on a short dress for the first time in 13 years and walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, following crowds of people. It made me feel powerful.
It also helps me to have the love of a supportive partner. After my divorce, I haven’t been dating in years. I was very aware. But a dear friend convinced me to go on a blind date. After about two weeks, I decided to show him the vitiligo. I told him he needed to see something, then I took off my pants in the bathroom and walked out with bare legs. He just looked at me and said, “That’s it?” He had no problem accepting me, the spots and everything.
As a teacher, I always talk to my students about the importance of self-acceptance. It is very easy for all of us to think that there is something wrong with ourselves, when in fact it is these small flaws that make us individual and unique. The most powerful thing you can do is tell yourself that you accept yourself, despite all your flaws. If you do it enough, you will eventually start to believe it. Once that happens, you’ve come a long way toward confronting self-doubt. After all, how you see yourself is what really matters.
I would be lying if I said I completely accept vitiligo. But where it once defined my life, it now plays only a small supporting role. I am a mother, a teacher, a life partner. My sites are a part of me, not the whole.
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