Written by Natalie Ambersley
If someone had said to me 5 years ago that I’d feature in a viral swimwear campaign, pose for photos in elegant underwear pieces or become a voice for Vitiligo, I would have responded with ‘Not a chance’. It’s amazing how; five years on, I can say I have achieved all those things because of a simple life changing opportunity…
Just over 5 years ago, I appeared on London Live to talk about living with the skin condition Vitiligo, which started as a tiny patch on the back of my hand when I was 2 years old. What I thought would be a simple television interview that would leave me largely un-recognised turned into the poignant moment when I admitted to myself that I had Vitiligo and I was finally okay with it.
Developing Vitiligo at such a young age meant I was too young to understand what it was, let alone how it would impact me later in life. As with most Vitiligo patients, diagnosis doesn’t come easy and after two unsuccessful trips to my GP it was finally confirmed I had the incurable condition after I was referred to a Dermatologist just after my 3rd birthday. After the first patch appeared, it didn’t take long for others to follow and by the time I was 4 years old, I was a mixed race child who was 70% white. It was from that point in my young life that people felt it was ‘acceptable’ to start asking questions and making assumptions about what they thought was wrong with me.
If truth be told, there wasn’t actually anything wrong with me. Sure, I had a skin condition that affected just 1% of the world’s population and yes, I did spend a lot of time in and out of hospital with my parents trying to find a cure, but there wasn’t actually anything wrong with me as such. I was healthy, my body functioned correctly and I was able to live an ordinary life.
Being a child with Vitiligo was easy because my appearance wasn’t important to me during my early years. My innocence believed that we were all just people. I had no clue about the ‘tags’ the media and society placed upon us, nor did I understand the importance of being ‘pretty’ amongst our peers.
My parents were firmly against covering my skin. Every day they would send me to school in a chequered pinafore dress, frilly white socks and patent shoes; the stark white patches on my legs free for the other kids to see. It was their intention from the outset that I wasn’t going to be embarrassed by my skin and they certainly didn’t want me to grow up thinking that it should be covered. I loved swimming and happily wore a swimsuit on the beach and have plenty of photos of me splashing around in the water without a care in the world for what I looked like.
My Mum became my ‘voice’ from a very young age and would deal with the inquisitive questions such as ‘has your daughter been burnt?’ or ‘it’s such a shame what’s happened to your daughter’. But was it a shame? Or was it just people were ignorant to the fact we don’t all come into this world looking exactly the same as the average person and therefore the automatic reaction is to show pity towards someone who looks different. I’d say it was the latter and was partly the reason why I didn’t think I was ‘normal’ like everyone else.
My parent’s hard work to instil me with confidence totally backfired by the time I’d started secondary school. Whilst I had spent my childhood mostly comfortable with how I looked, by the time I’d entered my teenage years everything had changed. I was now desperate to disguise every white patch on my teenage body. I noticed that everyone at my school was either black, white or of another race. I, on the other hand, had ‘problem’ skin that immediately set me apart from everyone else. I loved teenage magazines such as Just 17, Mizz and Sugar. I used to consume the words on the advice pages like I had my very own personal agony aunt and felt inspired by the models that featured on the fashion pages. Yet, none of them looked like me. I didn’t have Caucasian skin or long brown wavy hair that fell down my back and I certainly didn’t have perfect skin. Very rarely was I exposed to models of another ethnicity portraying ‘beauty’ and there certainly weren’t any with Vitiligo or any other skin condition for that matter.
As I became more image conscious I started to retreat. I became very sensitive about my skin and avoided questions and felt offended if anyone dare ask me what it was. I started wearing the thickest black tights to school because I was scared about my patches being visible and wore long sleeved shirts and trousers, even during the height of summer. I hated swimming and avoided lessons by writing notes to my teachers, often forged with my Mum’s signature because wearing a swimsuit in front of all my friends made me feel incredibly anxious. I became extremely self-conscious and strongly believed that being pretty was of the highest value…it was the one thing that I thought made you successful and popular. It meant that boys fancied you; all the popular kids wanted to be friends with you and it made you feel confident which was something to be admired. I carried the burden of my skin right through my twenties and based my entire existence on having Vitiligo. I spent years judging myself and believed everyone was judging me in the process. It made dating difficult, I avoided beach holidays and tried to disguise it from the world as much as I could.
Just after my 30th birthday, I decided to try UVB Narrowband treatment, a type of treatment that exposes the skin to ultraviolet light. The last time I’d been treated for Vitiligo was when I was 11 years old, so going back to hospital came with a mixture of emotions. The intense 12 month programme meant going to hospital twice a week before work and standing inside a large light box which, when switched on, would expose my skin to the light. The success rate for any patient was 50/50 so I started the year long process with mediocre faith that it would work. Miraculously, after just 3 months, I started to notice a change in my skin; my ‘natural’ skin colour was coming back and after 12 months my patches had reduced down to 30%. I felt like I’d been given a new life that allowed me to experience all those things I’d avoided growing up. Suddenly, I loved the idea of beach holidays and felt comfortable wearing a swimsuit around the pool knowing I cared very little for prying eyes that might be looking at my body discreetly. I was able to take my jacket off in a bar without having to spend 10 minutes building up the courage to do so and I felt comfortable answering questions about what it was without being defensive.
I still have Vitiligo, most prominently on my hands. It’s still on my legs and my arms, the only difference now, is that I’m totally in love with it! I know to some that might sound strange but I’ve finally learnt the importance of self- acceptance and having absolute appreciation for the body you have been blessed with. Vitiligo has stuck by me for all these years, it’s given me a story and finally I appreciate its what makes me unique.
Photographer: Elisabeth van Aalderen
MUA: Xiu Yun Yu
Model and writing: Natalie Ambersley
More work from these incredible women will be featured in the next printed publication!