Illustration by Anna Buckley

Photo diary: How one woman of color learned to let vitiligo and self-love coexist

August 28, 2018 8:00 am

Vitiligo is a skin disorder that affects millions of people across the world—approximately 1% of population in total. The disorder, which typically presents in a person’s mid-twenties, is said to be triggered by stress and manifests as spots and larger patches of skin losing pigment. This can be particularly life-changing, and sometimes traumatic, for women of color; it is often an individual journey to find a sense of empowerment in the loss of melanin. Here, one Filipina woman—a mother, artist, and partner—describes through photos and through words how vitiligo has affected her life and perception of her identity since her diagnosis. 

I was 25 years old and visiting the Philippines when I saw my first spot. It’s hot and humid there, so I first thought it was just sun damage. Then I found a second spot on my wrist. I’m pretty sure I googled, “White spots on wrist,” and thousands of vitiligo articles cropped up on my screen. I was in my dermatologist’s office a week later and she confirmed that I had vitiligo.

My first feeling: helplessness.

I asked what treatment options were available to me, and my dermatologist said there was really no way to stop the vitiligo from spreading, though some steroids might help slow its progression. I was confused about how I “caught” a skin disorder. Was it because of something I did or did not do? In fact, it was nothing I did: Vitiligo is an auto-immune disease that kills the melanin-producing cells in the skin, which causes white patches to form all over the body. If patches of white begin to live on the scalp, the hair turns white, too.

Michelle Iris Lee

As juvenile as it may sound, after my initial diagnosis, I was afraid that people were going to make fun of me and call me names (which they did: I’ve been called spots, Dalmatian, cow, etc.). Now, my greatest fear is for my son. He’s entering school, and we all know that young children can be mean, with or without intention. I’m afraid they’re going to tease him because his mom has this observable condition. 

But my son is only five years old, and he sees my skin as normal—I’ve had it for his whole life. I even tried to point out my vitiligo spots to him a few times, but he doesn’t seem to see them.

Boyet Lee

My immediate family was very supportive. We started diving into research for treatments as soon as we learned what it was—though I didn’t get that kind of helpful reaction from everyone. A cousin of mine bluntly mocked me when I got a tattoo on my wrist that says “fight” to remind me to keep fighting, asking, “What are you trying to fight? Becoming an Albino?” I asked my then-boyfriend if he would still love me when more spots appear. He said, “Of course I will. I loved my Dalmatian, so I will for sure love you.”

Illustration by Anna Buckley

I probably bought every single concealer on the market when I was first diagnosed. I would wear heavy foundation to even out my skin tone, and I even started learning airbrush makeup so I could cover the spots on my wrist. Now, on most days, I go without makeup. Even if I apply some light foundation, I never cover my spots anymore.

The appearance of new vitiligo spots accelerated during my pregnancy. Some specialists believe that vitiligo is stress-triggered. Even though there is no clinical evidence to back this up, in my situation it seems to be the case. I’ve noticed that my vitiligo seems to increase during periods of my life in which things are changing.

Michelle Iris Lee

My vitiligo does not change how I feel about my Filipina identity. I’m 100% Pinay; I start playing Christmas songs in September, root for Manny Pacquiao, and—given the choice—I will choose halo-halo over any dessert. (I do draw the line at putting a Philippines flag on my car, though.) Older Filipinos in my life (who are generally not familiar with vitiligo) make comments like, “Oh, you would have been so pretty…” or “I pity you so much…” This is ironic, of course, because most Filipinos want lighter skin. The Philippines, like most Asian countries, have large segments of people who consume skin whitening products—from lotion to deodorant to pills.

Michelle Iris Lee

It took years before I was finally able to realize that vitiligo is a part of me, but not the defining part of me. I understand that it is beyond my control; a new spot will form regardless of my feelings about it or how people will react to it. The only thing I have control over is how I react to my vitiligo, and so I’ve learned to accept it. Now, I even forget I have it.

Michelle Iris Lee

Having a very supportive partner helped me find a path to self-love. He would often remind me how beautiful I am and that helped me be more comfortable and love not just my vitiligo, but myself.

Christina Wolfgram

My saddest memories of vitiligo are of the times people seem surprised that I can be okay with having vitiligo. My life doesn’t revolve around my skin and its determination to change. I haven’t changed.

Joyce Paulo

I did try to get treatment in the beginning. I went to at least five different dermatologists and sampled many different creams and steroids. Nothing worked. I think that was one of the turning points for me: I can’t fix this…I can’t keep applying steroids forever. Then, I just embraced it. It’s a part of me now. I welcome every spot.