After getting vitiligo at an early age, Anam Naeem’s white spots spread at the age of nine when she moved from Pakistan to London with her family. School wasn’t easy for her. As a shy girl with an accent and white spots, Anam stood out – despite her best efforts to blend in. Although she always put on a strong face, Anam struggled internally, wondering why she looked so different from her peers.
Today, Anam shares her journey to confidence – including how a haircut jump-started her path to self-love – and her recent interview with Channel4 showcasing her portrait by London artist Tim J. Fowler. Here’s her story.
Name: Anam Naeem
Years with Vitiligo: 18
Hometown: Croydon, London
LD: You were just nine years old when you moved to London and your vitiligo started spreading. What was that experience like for you?
AN: It was a hard transition. I was a shy kid at that time. English wasn’t the language I was familiar with and I also had a Pakistani accent. A family friend told me that people might try to bully me because I was Pakistani, had a different accent, didn’t speak very much and looked visibly different. These were all factors I had to deal with for the first time ever. I think as a child I constantly had these things playing through my head. I was always trying to blend in and not be noticed because I didn’t want my differences to be an issue. Until a few years ago, my main mission in life was to just exist in harmony with society and do what was expected of me. My only focus was to hide.
LD: What was it like going to school with vitiligo?
AN: It was hard, and lonely. Every day I was go to school with a smile and confront a new bully. Then I would go home at night and replay the entire day in my head on repeat, trying to figure out how to prevent it next time. I just didn’t want to be in school. I cried in the toilets. I couldn’t change clothes in front of other girls because I didn’t want them to see the vitiligo on my body. I couldn’t touch my face or let anyone else get too close because I was afraid it would remove my makeup. I was just alone in my own world. I was lucky though, my family kept me positive.
LD: Tell us more about that – how has your family been there for you?
AN: My family sacrificed a lot for my happiness. My two older sisters paid a huge amount of money for a skin grafting operation for me in India. My family gave me everything I could ask for and always motivated me. I think they saw me at my lowest. And even though I look so different, my family – and my mum especially – fully accept me as I am because they know the struggle I endured to get here. I’m grateful that they always showered me with unconditional love.
LD: What has your journey with vitiligo been like since then?
AN: It was hard trying to build the person I am now. I just knew I had to express myself – vitiligo and otherwise – or I would regret it all my life. So, I took baby steps. I decided to cut my hair first because I thought it would take the focus off my vitiligo if I removed my makeup later. That changed people’s perspective of me. I went from femme to tomboy. I loved it. Then I decided to share a photo of myself on Instagram without makeup. I kept the post light-hearted by captioning it with a panda emoji because of my patches. The reaction was amazing, and it got the most amount of likes I’ve ever had on anything.
LD: You were also part of Brock Elbank’s “Vitiligo” series too, right?
AN: Yes, he commented on that Instagram picture asking me to be in his series. I was in awe. It was the first time I had put myself out there and a well-known photographer actually noticed me. I decided to do the shoot. I was in front of the camera bare faced. When I got to see the pictures, I realized that I had never properly looked at myself before – because I always tried to ignore my vitiligo. It was like I was seeing myself for the first time. It was then that I started embracing my vitiligo. I’ve never looked back.
LD: How has embracing your skin changed your life today?
AN: I built my career in banking and became a personal banking manager. I had long hair for most of that time, and then short. I built that career to fit in and be like the rest of my community. I think once I embraced the vitiligo, my eyes finally opened. I left the bank last year and changed my career to barbering. Once I accepted my vitiligo, I found a new confidence and finally started to make big decisions on my own. There wasn’t a big grey cloud of stress from vitiligo anymore and I was able to change my outlook on life. I made big decisions more easily and realized that not everything requires the amount of stress I give it.
LD: You’ve gone through some dark times to get to where you are today. What would you tell your former self today as she was going through those moments?
AN: That it was worth it. I’m grateful to the old me for sticking it out and surviving so that the new me can live “little me’s” dream life. That scared little girl will always be inside me and I would never want to get rid of her. Because she endured so much pain, the new me can now handle so much more. She is the reason I’m able to relate to others’ struggles and she’s also the reason I shared my story. I’m so proud of little me for sticking it out, and she’s proud of me for doing the same now. Living and going through dark moments makes you so much more appreciative of the easier ones.
LD: What was it like to share your story with Channel4 and have Tim paint your portrait?
AN: This was a monumental thing I did to share my story and be vulnerable. The portrait reveal was scary. I mean, the canvas itself was at least a meter by a meter big and I just thought to myself: “a meter worth of my bare face, oh my god.” But once I saw it, I was totally in love with it. I think I was just so overwhelmed with emotions. It was like a trophy for my former self demonstrating that she did it. Tim made it look so vibrant and really made my most vulnerable self a work of art. Doing a documentary with Channel 4 with such an amazing artist – it still feels surreal. The portrait is hanging in my lounge now. My mum loves it so much that she said decided to keep it there. My mum just wanted me to be happy growing up. For her that painting is the proof that I finally am.
Watch Channel4’s video of Anam and Tim below:
Erika Page is the Founder and Editor of Living Dappled. After getting vitiligo at the age of seven, she lost 100% of her pigment to the condition and today lives with universal vitiligo.