By Leah Antonio, as told to Hayley Levine.
I was diagnosed with vitiligo at the age of 26. Now, 15 years later, I am able to accept and thrive with the condition thanks to the support of my partner, the vitiligo community, and most importantly, my two children.
Dealing with the diagnosis
When I first saw the vitiligo patches on my body, I didn’t know the name of it, 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 the vitiligo would probably spread all over my body. I left his office crying. I was young, confident, and all about fun. I loved going to the beach and showing off my body in cute little dresses. Now, I was afraid to do that. I felt helpless and traumatized.
To make things worse, I realized that no one could help my self-doubt. Every time I’ve told someone how I feel, they put it down: “Oh, you’re young and beautiful, and you should be thankful it’s not cancer.” Of course, they meant well, but I wanted people to listen to me and understand how I felt. I refused to look in the mirror, and would often go to sleep at night asking myself, “Why me?”
It felt like every time I tried to express my feelings to someone and try to understand them, they would slap me in the face. I was calling for help, but no one seemed to be able to hear me. Even a therapist I spoke to once dismissed my feelings when I explained my reluctance to wear a bathing suit to the beach. Her response: “What about people who are overweight? They’re in bathing suits all the time.”
Faced with my doubt
For years I was stuck in feelings of doubt and insecurity. My vitiligo made me feel unattractive and self-conscious. I isolated myself from any activities that would expose my spots. At my bridal shower, for example, while all my guests were wearing cute little sundresses, I made her sweat it out in long pants. Then I became a mother. By then, my vitiligo had spread to my legs. In the beginning, I was so self-conscious 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 wasn’t going to let my vitiligo get in the way of raising my children. The first time I took them to the pond, I was depressed. I was sure everyone was staring at me (though 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 decided to wear capri pants, which showed off my vitiligo. Another child approached him and asked what was wrong with his mother’s legs. My son just looked at him and simply said, “Nothing. God made it that way.” A few weeks later, I was curled up in bed with my daughter when she said to me, “Mom, I like your clouds.” It took me a few moments to realize she was referring to my vitiligo. It made me realize: My kids didn’t see my vitiligo. He just saw his mother. If they can accept my body, blemishes and all, so can I.
The power of community
My children aren’t the only people who have helped me overcome my doubt. About 6 years ago, I started researching more about vitiligo online. I discovered the website Living Dappled, and it was life changing. I saw pictures of women who looked like me, and I read their stories, which were similar to my own. Then a few years later, I got an email that Living Deployed was looking for models for a photo shoot. I signed up — and it was one of the best things I ever did. I put on a short dress for the first time in 13 years and walked over the Brooklyn Bridge, through the throngs of people. It made me feel so empowered.
It also helps that I have a supportive partner. After my divorce, I didn’t date for years. I was very self-conscious. But a good friend convinced me to go on my blind date. After about 2 weeks, I decided to show him my vitiligo. I told her she had to see something, then I took off my pants in the bathroom and stepped out with bare legs. He just looked at me and said, “That’s it?” He had no problem accepting me, Spot and all.
As a teacher, I always talk to my students about the importance of self-acceptance. It is so easy for all of us to think that there is something wrong with us, when in reality these little imperfections are what make us individual and unique. The most powerful thing you can do is tell yourself that you accept yourself for all your flaws. If you do this enough, you eventually start to believe it. Once that happens, you’re well on your way to facing self-doubt. After all, it’s how you see yourself that really matters.
I’d be lying if I said I fully embraced my vitiligo. But where it once defined my life, it now plays only a small supporting role. I am a mother, a teacher, a life partner. My spots are part of me, not all of me.