Jackie McDonald, as told to Hallie Levine
About 25 years ago I was at the beach with my two young children. It was just another beautiful day playing in the water and sand together. We went to the concession stand to have lunch. I noticed a man staring at me. At first I thought nothing of it – I was used to men and their admiring looks. But this time I realized that he wasn’t looking at me with approval, but with horror. I grabbed my kids and got in my car. When I looked at myself in the side mirror, I was totally shocked. Who was this woman with white spots around her mouth, lips, and eyes?
It was my first real moment of confronting living with Vitiligo. Suddenly I had gone from being a lovely young woman to someone I didn’t recognize. Thankfully, today I accept and embrace my vitiligo, but it was a long, hard road to get there.
I found out I had Vitiligo when I was 31, right after my second child was born. I was previously diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune thyroid disease. (The two conditions sometimes occur together.) I had gone to my dermatologist after noticing a white, nickel-sized spot on the inside of my wrist. I had spent the summer at the beach and was very tanned. In contrast, the spot appeared as a bright white sphere. It made me uneasy.
The dermatologist was very abrupt: he spent 2 minutes explaining to me that I have vitiligo and the spots would most likely spread to other parts of my body. I was confused and kept asking questions, but he brushed me off. It was clear he didn’t think he could “fix” me and wanted to move on to his next patient. He wrote me a prescription for steroid cream and walked out.
At first, the vitiligo seemed manageable. I dressed strategically, in long sleeves and pants. Then it spread and covered more than a quarter of my skin – my hands, elbows, legs and back. But it didn’t really start to bother me until the vitiligo appeared on my face and makeup wouldn’t cover it. At first I tried eyebrow pencils and powders but gave up when they didn’t work. Self-tanners were also too messy and difficult to apply just to my spots.
My vitiligo didn’t seem to bother my husband or children, but it upset me. I wanted to keep it private. I wanted to present myself to the world as the person I was before the commercials – that’s how I felt. I hated the fact that almost every time I walked into the store I would pull out my wallet and the checker would automatically stare at her hands. Although they never said anything, I could tell they were wondering what was going on. I hated being that woman with vitiligo.
One day I accidentally spilled furniture stains on my arm. I was amazed to see that the color matched my skin and concealed a white vitiligo spot. I decided then and there to create a non-toxic patch for the skin to camouflage Vitiligo. Over the next few years, I tried everything from hair dye and henna products to food coloring and eyebrow pigment. Nothing worked, but I didn’t give up. In my research, I read comments on YouTube videos of these young girls who were devastated by this disease. Watching them write about not wanting to leave the house and worrying that they would never get a boyfriend broke my heart. Having worked in youth ministry, I knew how easily teenagers and young adults can find themselves in a crisis. I wanted to help them.
Then I noticed an advertisement for Fake Bake’s self-tanner. I approached the company with an offer for a product specifically designed for people with Vitiligo. They contacted me the same day. A year later, Fake Bake launched Vitiligo Vanquish. It has changed my life: I apply it to my spots twice a week and touch up my hands more often.
Finding a way to cover my spots has given me the confidence to do things like walk into stores or shake hands without worrying about awkward looks or conversations. But I also recognize that some people don’t want to cover their vitiligo, and that’s perfectly fine too. I’m not ashamed of my spots. I just enjoy going out into the world as a colour.
I’ve talked to so many young girls who worry they’ll never go on a date because they have vitiligo. I make sure I take the time to explain to them that if a guy rejects you for any spots, you don’t want anything to do with him anyway. I’m single now, and while I won’t bring up my vitiligo on my first date, I make sure a man knows before we get too serious. If my vitiligo puts him off, that’s his problem. I want to be able to swim in the ocean or go a few days without my Vitiligo Vanquish without worrying about what any guy thinks.
But there’s also nothing wrong with covering up your spots if you want to. Every day I get messages from people with vitiligo who are embarrassed that they want to “hide” their vitiligo. But sometimes you don’t want to have to constantly talk about your condition at work or for people to get to know you without focusing on your spots. Each person with vitiligo must make their own choice.
Regardless, I encourage anyone with vitiligo to embrace their skin. Vitiligo is beautiful. Whether you camouflage your spots occasionally or proudly show them openly, let’s celebrate.