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How I Found the Courage to Stop Covering My Vitiligo

How I Found the Courage to Stop Covering My Vitiligo

woman looks off in distance

Four years ago, a woman with vitiligo on Instagram dared me to take off my tanner, which I had been wearing head to toe for a few years to cover my vitiligo. The idea made me sick to my stomach. At that point, tanner was both my security blanket and my ticket to freedom. I couldn’t imagine letting anyone see me without it. I politely thanked her for the challenge and said that I hoped to be able to do that one day.

Today I’ve been tanner free for one year and I’m here to tell the story about how I found the courage to stop covering my vitiligo – and never look back.

Let me back up to the beginning.

I got vitiligo when I was seven years old. It started as a few white spots along my spine and quickly spread to my knees and elbows – and almost everywhere else soon after that. By the time I was in my early twenties, vitiligo had taken more than 80% of my pigment. It was around that time that I started wearing tanner head to toe, allowing me to camouflage the remaining contrast between my natural skin color and the depigmented areas of vitiligo.

Wearing tanner made me feel like myself – as in, the girl I had been before vitiligo took over my skin. In my mind, I was the tan-skinned girl I had been as a child instead of the patchy, pale girl that I had become. Wearing tanner to cover my skin made my reflection in the mirror look like the image in my head.

The experience was freeing. Not only did I feel more like myself than ever before, tanner changed my everyday experience in the world. I felt like I could wear shorts, dresses and swimsuits without a second thought. I was excited to go clothes shopping for a change. I liked my reflection in the mirror. For the first time that I could remember, I could walk down the street without people staring at my skin. I was invisible. And I couldn’t have been happier about it. It was as if I had been given a chance at my ‘old life’ back – before vitiligo.

Using tanner to cover my vitiligo

At first, I was getting spray tans at a local tanning salon. I would go once a week – and sometimes more. The entire process took 2-3 hours. I would shower and exfoliate at home before going to the salon and then sitting around at home waiting for my skin to feel fully dry. Eventually, the time commitment became a burden and I started trying self-tanners at home. Fast forward a few fails and awkward tanning results, and I found a self-tanner that was natural looking and easy to use.

I was in heaven. Until I realized that I wasn’t.

I’m Caucasian but grew up with skin that developed a deep tan with the sun. To match that same level of tan with self-tanner, I used a dark color. The contrast between the dye and my depigmented skin was drastic. As a result, any errors in application – or rainy days, pools and showers – could leave my tan looking patchy and messy. I became obsessed with maintaining a perfect tan. I took the bottle with me everywhere. I always had backups. And I wouldn’t leave the house without a ‘perfect’ coat applied.

That wasn’t all. Wearing tanner had its downsides. I had to sleep in a separate set of sheets every time I applied a new coat because it stained the fabric. I had to constantly be careful to not get tanner on clothes and towels. I couldn’t get in the pool because the chlorine would strip off the color. And one day, I got caught in the rain and had tanner running down my legs in big brown streaks.

The stress of keeping up the perfect tan consumed me. I was emotionally dependent on tanner and physically exhausted of trying to keep up with the process. Even worse, I was realizing that while tanner had been my ticket to freedom, it was now becoming an unhealthy security blanket.

After a while, I decided to switch to a lighter color of tanner. The change, though seemingly small, made a significant impact on my mental and physical health. The color was closer to a “natural” look for my skin. I felt myself letting go a little bit. I was still wearing tanner every day, but the contrast between the tan and my depigmented skin was lessened enough that I could swim, sweat and do everyday things without “ruining” my complexion.

Things were looking up. I was able to apply the tanner in just five minutes before getting dressed every morning and run out the door, ready to go. The impact on my daily routine was significantly lighter. I was feeling more confident with my skin. I had let go of the weight of upholding a ‘perfect’ tan. I felt like I had finally found my happy place.

I couldn’t have guessed that I would be tanner free within the year.

Starting the journey to being tanner free

One evening after I had showered, my husband needed to run to the grocery store. I decided to go with him but was going to wait in the car because I wasn’t wearing tanner or makeup. Sitting in the car was the obvious answer to me. In fact, it never even occurred to me to go into the store until I was watching my husband walk in without me. I suddenly realized how silly the entire situation was, worked up my courage, and ran after him.

We were in the grocery store for no more than five minutes, but it felt like hours. I felt exposed. I kept my eyes down. I felt like everyone was staring at me. My insecurities flooded my brain before I even had a fighting chance. And yet, once we got back in the car and relief flooded in, I felt something else – a sense of calm and confidence. I had been seen by people without tanner and makeup – quite literally my worst fear – and nothing had happened.

A few weeks later, we were going to the gym on a Saturday. I hadn’t gotten dressed for the day yet and wanted to do my makeup before going to the gym. Again, I realized how silly that was given that I was about to sweat it all off. I thought back to the evening at the grocery store and decided to go to the gym sans makeup. Again, I felt exposed. I kept my eyes down. I felt like everyone was staring at me. My insecurities flooded my brain before I even had a fighting chance. And yet, once we got back home and relief flooded in, I felt something else – a sense of calm and confidence. For the second time, I had faced my fears – and nothing had happened.

In the following months, I went to the gym and the store without makeup one and two more times – and then a few times after that. I was still wearing tanner. But I was taking a major step towards loving the skin I was in. I was also slowly getting tired of constantly applying tanner. For the first time in my life, I became curious about what my then fully depigmented skin looked like. I had worn tanner head to toe since before I had fully lost my pigment. I didn’t even know what my skin looked like without tanner.

Fast forward to the spring of 2019. I saw that Sarah Herron, former Bachelor contestant and founder of SheLift, was hosting a confidence course in NYC – and it included a photo shoot. I signed up knowing that if I was going to show up to a course about confidence, I wanted to leave my tanner behind. I was tired of hiding. But I was also nervous. I didn’t really have a plan. I knew I would have to stop wearing tanner a few weeks before the shoot to give it time to fully fade. But I didn’t have a date in mind. So, one morning when I woke up, I decided that was the day and threw my tanner bottle in the trash.

That week, I felt so awkward going to work and being surrounded by so many people. Again, I felt truly exposed. I felt like I had a big sign on my head. I’m not sure what it would have said. But I felt like it was there – perhaps a yellow neon sign in flashing letters. And yet, once again, no one noticed. It was the most underwhelming experience I’ve ever had. I was shocked. But mostly, I was surprisingly relieved. The entire battle was truly all in my head.

The shoot in NYC with Sarah Herron was a beautiful moment that celebrated this big leap I had taken. I spent eight hours in a room full of women I didn’t know, overwhelmed by the love and support for my journey coming from complete strangers. I was so proud to be me that day.

After the shoot, I thought I would put tanner on again at some point. I didn’t have a plan. I was just taking it day by day. I remember wearing a dress to work on my birthday. Even though I felt self-conscious about my pale, bare legs, I was being the person I wanted to be – and I figured the rest would follow. I would get back into tanner when I was ready – that’s what I told myself.

It turns out that day never came.

Embracing the skin I’m in

For the first time in a long time, I’m embracing the skin I’m in. It feels good to wake up each day and not worry about applying tanner. It feels good to wear less makeup. It feels good to be comfortable in my skin. I’ve even started to love some of the things that come with not having pigment – like no tan lines and no need to change your shade of foundation between seasons. I’m genuinely happy.

But this story doesn’t end there.

I wish I could say that I embraced my skin and lived happily ever after. But there are no fairy tales here. I do love my skin and I am embracing this part of my life. But that does not mean it’s easy. It does not mean that I do not struggle. It does not mean that living with a disease that took 100% of my pigment is suddenly “okay” now. It does not mean that the mental and emotional pain of growing up with spots all over my body is erased. No, not even a little.

I often still get nervous and anxious about being seen in a bathing suit. There are many times I still feel uncomfortable wearing shorts or dresses. At work, I’ll notice how drastically pale I am compared to everyone else on a video call. When I’m with my siblings, I can’t help but think that I look like I was adopted. I frequently experience skin envy – jealously of others’ skin – and battle thoughts of ‘what if,’ wondering how different my story could be.

This part of the story matters. It’s important to know that loving your skin doesn’t necessarily mean life will be perfect. I am so much happier today than I ever have been living with vitiligo. But that doesn’t mean that every day is a good one. I’m still processing and grieving the loss of my pigment. And that’s okay. I’ll continue to take steps of courage towards loving myself and where I am today. And that’s the key – steps.

Let’s rewind to the beginning of this story.

Four years ago, a woman with vitiligo on Instagram dared me to take off my tanner, which I had been wearing head to toe for a few years to cover my vitiligo. The idea made me sick to my stomach.

If that is you – someone covering their skin today – and you’ve ever had even the smallest of desires to live without it, then this moment is for you. I’m passing it forward. I dare you to take off your tanner, camouflage, makeup – whatever it is that is holding you back. Maybe the idea makes you sick to your stomach. That’s okay. The idea has been planted. And I hope to hear from you one day with your own story about embracing the skin you’re in.

There’s one more point I need to make. If that is you – someone covering their skin today – and you have no desire to stop covering your vitiligo, then don’t stop. It’s 100% okay to cover your vitiligo. I did, for years. And for many of those years, tanner gave me the ability to live life the way I wanted. It turns out that how I wanted to live my life changed – I realized that I didn’t want to apply tanner every day anymore. That meant that I needed to find a way to love my skin as it is today. It’s your choice – I only hope that you find happiness in choosing it.

View Comment (1)
  • Dear Erika,

    Your story had me enthralled all the way through.
    I work as a Medical Tattooist and Camouflage practitioner, and previously as a body painter. I love the way people look – and see many visible differences that are striking. With body painting I used to highlight and enhance the differences for artistic reasons. Nowadays I use my skills to help camouflage and cover the differences. I try not to judge which is best, but go with my patients needs in the moment. The confidence of my patient is the end result. However they get there.

    And peoples stories never fail to entrance me, to inspire me, to help me connect to the world out there.

    I now collaborate and refer to a clinical psychologist if needed because for some people the underlying psychological condition needs work first, which also builds confidence so they may or may not want to cover up at the end of treatment. Either way, like you mentioned, whatever that person needs at that moment in time should be available to them with the knowledge that people and things change, and their journey should be respected every step of the way.

    I really appreciate your article and it has focused me to remember it is the patients needs that are paramount, and to remember a solution is not the end point, and there can be difficulties along the way whichever option is chosen. Your article will help a lot of people, with or without Vitiligo.

    Thank you, Rae.

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