By Leah Antonio as told to Hallie Levine
I was diagnosed with vitiligo when I was 26. For years I struggled with low self-esteem and self-doubt. Now, 15 years later, thanks to the support of my partner, the vitiligo community, and most importantly, my two children, I am able to accept and even thrive in this condition.
When I first saw the Vitiligo spots on my body I didn’t know their name but I knew what it was. Both my mother and my aunt have the condition. I went to a dermatologist who told me there was no cure and that vitiligo was likely to spread all over my body. I left her office in tears. I was young, confident and wanted to have fun. I loved going to the beach and showing off my body in cute little dresses. Well I was afraid to do that. I felt helpless and traumatized.
To make matters worse, I felt like no one could help me with my self-doubt. Every time I told someone how I felt, they downplayed it: “Oh, you’re young and beautiful, and you should just be thankful it’s not cancer.” Sure, they meant well, but I did wanted people to listen to me and understand how I feel. I refused to look in the mirror and I often cried myself to sleep at night asking, “Why me?”
It felt like they would slap me in the face every time I tried to express my feelings to someone and get them to understand. I screamed for help, but no one seemed to hear me. Even a therapist I spoke to once dismissed my feelings when I explained my concerns about wearing a bathing suit on the beach. Her answer: “What about overweight people? They change into bathing suits all the time.”
I was stuck in feelings of doubt and insecurity for many, many years. My vitiligo made me feel unattractive and insecure. I isolated myself from all activities that exposed my spots. For example, at my bridal shower, while all my guests were wearing cute little sun dresses, I sweated it out in long pants. Then I became a mom. By then my vitiligo had spread down my legs. At first I was so confident 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 let my vitiligo get in the way of raising my children. The first time I took her to the pool I was embarrassed. I was convinced everyone was staring at me (although in hindsight they probably weren’t). Then I saw how much fun my kids were having and those feelings went away.
A few months later I was at the playground with my 4 year old son. I had opted for capri pants that showed my vitiligo. Another child went to him and asked what was wrong with his mother’s legs. My son just looked at him and simply said, “Nothing. God just made them that way.” A few weeks later, I was snuggling with my daughter in her bed when she said to me, “Mom, I love your clouds.” It took me a few moments to realize that she was related to my vitiligo. I realized: my children didn’t see my vitiligo. You just saw your mom. If they could accept my body with pimples and all, so could I.
My children aren’t the only people who have helped me overcome my doubts. I started researching more about vitiligo online about 6 years ago. I discovered the Living Dappled website and it changed my life. I saw photos of women who looked like me and read their stories, which were so similar to my own. Then a few years later I got an email that Living Dappled was looking for models for a photo shoot. 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 past crowds. It made me feel so empowered.
It also helps that I have the love of a supportive partner. After my divorce, I didn’t date for years. I was overconfident. But a good friend persuaded me to go on my blind date. After about 2 weeks I decided to show him my vitiligo. I told him he needed to see something, then I took off my pants in the bathroom and walked out bare-legged. He just looked at me and said, “That’s it?” He had no problem accepting me, stains and all.
As a teacher, I always talk to my students about the importance of self-acceptance. It’s so easy for all of us to think there’s something wrong with us, when in fact it’s these little flaws that make us individuals and unique. The strongest thing you can do is tell yourself that despite all your imperfections, you accept yourself. If you do this often enough, eventually you’ll start believing it. Once that happens, you’ve come a long way in dealing with self-doubt. After all, how you see yourself matters.
I would be lying if I said I totally accept my Vitiligo. But where it once determined my life, today it only plays a minor role. I am a mother, teacher, life partner. My spots are part of me, not the whole me.