My great-grandmother had vitiligo—that condition which causes white patches to spread on the skin. I remember other kids I used to play with would stare at her whenever she walked by because of how her vitiligo was spread from head to toe—I’d say it was on 90 percent of her body.
My great-grandmother was also much more than the old lady with vitiligo. Everyone loved her because she had helped so many people throughout her life with her herbal medicine, especially the pregnant women in her village whom she helped in giving birth. Growing up, I always saw her as this strong and confident, yet gentle and empathetic person; I was always so fascinated by her, and I still look up to her to this day. Oh, and she lived to be 106 or 107 years old, which is why I got to know her.
Three generations in my family followed, and for many years, it looked like no one had inherited my great-grandmother’s vitiligo. That is, until two years ago, when I noticed my skin becoming slightly lighter on the right side of my face.
That was in September 2017. Back then, the discoloration was barely noticeable, so I brushed it off. A month later, I modeled for a friend’s photo shoot and noticed how unusual my skin looked in the photos—the discoloration had started to become more apparent—but still, I shrugged it off, thinking that it was nothing makeup couldn’t fix. By January 2018, a more noticeable dot had appeared on my cheek; still, I wasn’t alarmed because face powder could easily cover it up. Makeup had always been my go-to whenever I wanted to correct something on my face, and I figured this wouldn’t be any different.
It wasn’t until the next two months that I realized that something was up. My boyfriend and I were often out traveling, and with all the basking in the sun that we did, my normally fair skin darkened. That’s when I saw that what I thought was just a white dot was more than that—it was a small patch about the size of a one-peso coin that had blended into my skin this whole time, only to come out stark against my darker skin color.
I told friends about it, and a few of them said that it was probably just tinea versicolor, a fungal infection which causes discoloration of the skin in small patches. While it looked like tinea versicolor, and I certainly hoped it was tinea versicolor, I had a sinking feeling that it was what my grandmother had. I didn’t want to get ahead of myself though, so I set up an appointment with a dermatologist.
When I visited the dermatologist for the first time and told him about my great-grandmother having vitiligo, it didn’t take long for him to figure out that that was what I had.
While vitiligo is quite common among the elderly, even children can develop it—I myself was 18 at the time. He made it clear that it was going to spread over time, and he said I could try phototherapy to slow down the process.
During that visit, the derma told me that vitiligo was an autoimmune disease, a type of disease in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys certain cells—in this case, the pigment cells of the skin called melanocytes. He explained that, while vitiligo is quite common among the elderly, even children can develop it—I myself was 18 at the time. He made it clear that it was going to spread over time, and he said I could try phototherapy to slow down the process. Then he advised that I wear a lot of sunscreen and avoid going out much during the day if I wanted to make the patch less visible.
After the visit to the derma, I hunkered down to learn more about vitiligo. Based on online research and videos of people with the condition, I learned that some have been able to reduce the size of their patches through a special plant-based diet and consumption of chlorophyll through the years, while others did so by undergoing phototherapy sessions. A couple of medical practitioners have also claimed that vitiligo may be caused by inflammation in the intestine. I also learned that it’s the same skin condition Michael Jackson had, yet his was a rare case of vitiligo. But through all of my research, I learned this: No one truly knows the exact cause of vitiligo and what triggers it.
Upon my derma’s suggestion, I tried phototherapy a couple of times. However, it was quite expensive, wasn’t available where I live which meant I had to get it done in another city, and was generally a pain in the butt to maintain. So most of the time, I covered up my vitiligo with a lot of makeup, to the extent that I would resort to airbrush makeup for events so that it would be completely sealed. Layering on makeup became a routine for me, and I would use three different shades of foundation to even out the patches. It felt like I was wearing a mask every day.
The comments and stares I started getting didn’t help. One person said, “Nasira ang ganda mo.” Some people have tried to touch my face because they thought that my vitiligo was just makeup that wasn’t blended well. I got a lot of questions from people asking me if it’s contagious—it’s not—and suggestions such as one where I should mash up herbs and put the mixture on my face. People would gawk when I’d walk around barefaced—they probably thought I had burned my face.
Layering on makeup became a routine for me, and I would use three different shades of foundation to even out the patches. It felt like I was wearing a mask every day.
But more than the comments and stares, what brought me anguish were the questions I asked myself. I always wondered why, out of the many relatives I had within three generations in our family, did it have to be me? Why did the vitiligo choose me? It bothered me even more because vitiligo isn’t something that most people are aware of—only 0.5 to one percent of the worldwide population have it—and I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life explaining why I look the way I do. I felt like my face was ruined. I’ve long had marks on my body that I’ve been insecure about, but they could easily be hidden under clothing—yet I can’t say the same for my face. I became so self-conscious that I refused to face anyone without makeup on. Almost all of my friends had no idea what I was going through, and I felt alone.
Now, it’s been over a year since I was diagnosed with vitiligo. The patches have spread: That small patch on my cheek has spread to my jaw, then another has shown up on my lip, then another has developed around my eye, and a new one has just popped up on my forehead. Every other month, I’d wake up and notice a new little dot somewhere. But in the course of that difficult year, along with the patches, something else developed: a true acceptance of the skin I’m in, and with it, empowerment.
I’ve always known how important self-love is, but my vitiligo tested mine big time—for a while, I feared that people would no longer welcome me like they did before because let’s face it: Looks matter. But as I worked to conquer that fear, my vitiligo turned out to help me love myself more in a way I never did when I didn’t have vitiligo at all. Now, I am no longer reluctant to share, nor do I panic, when someone asks me about what happened to my face. It no longer affects me what others think of it, and I now go out with minimal to no makeup—certainly less than how much I used to wear pre-vitiligo.
While I’ve learned to accept my condition, I realized that there were still people in my life who didn’t know I had it, and I wanted to not just let them know, but educate them, too. So last month, I finally posted about my vitiligo on Facebook. Soon after, I uploaded a photo of myself with my vitiligo in full bloom—makeup be damned.
After opening up on Facebook, positive messages started pouring in from friends and even strangers. I had tried to hide from these people because I was scared that they would see me differently, but what they gave me instead was a lot of love.
I’ve always known how important self-love is, but my vitiligo tested mine big time—for a while, I feared that people would no longer welcome me like they did before because let’s face it: Looks matter.
Sometimes, I still feel like I’m walking through this journey alone, but now I can assure myself that everything is going to be alright. And I don’t have to look far for inspiration—my great-grandmother had vitiligo from head to toe, but she was well-loved, widely-respected, and lived to be over a hundred years old.
One Facebook friend called that photo I posted “empowering,” which is exactly what I want people with my condition to feel when they look at themselves in the mirror. I hope that anyone who’s going through the same thing reads this, finds comfort in my and my great-grandmother’s story, and realizes that they’re not any less beautiful, or any less good, or any less of themselves.