While growing up, whenever you’d spot someone with vitiligo, what’s the first reaction that would come to your mind? “Strange”, “weird” or “unusual”, perhaps? While vitiligo does cause one’s skin to look different from what’s commonly found, it by no means, allows us to conclude that that’s abnormal. For those of you who aren’t aware, vitiligo is a skin condition which causes uneven pigmentation a.k.a white patches all over the skin, due to unequal distribution of melanin. Is it harmful, contagious or something to look down at? Certainly, not. Though we think that gone are the days when people weren’t woke enough to be sensitive about the things they say or the way they act, people who are different from anything that’s socially acceptable, still bear the brunt of negativity (or toxicity) from all sources. People with vitiligo are *still* bullied and pulled down, both – in person and on social media. And hence, social media content creators Aastha Shah and Prarthana Jagan’s public embracement of their vitiligo seems like a breath of fresh air, almost victorious and courageous. Today, on World Vitiligo Day, we speak to them both and trace their journey to self-love and self-acceptance.
When did you find out about your vitiligo? What was your reaction like?
Prarthana Jagan: I was honestly too young to know what was going on, all I knew was that I didn’t look like everybody else, I thought it was like a fever, you can take the medicine, fall asleep and the next day it would be gone. But I saw that it affected my parents, they would take me to the doctor’s office after school and get my laser treatments done, it was all very confusing to me.
Aastha Shah: I was 8 years old when I first got diagnosed with vitiligo. Back then it was a nightmare for my family and me but now it’s the face of my confidence. I remember I fell down while playing and right after a white patch appeared. We visited the doctor and he just gave us some creams to apply. Dad thought there’s something else to this, so he went home and googled it and we found out it’s vitiligo. Next day we barged into the doctor’s cabin asking him why he didn’t tell us it’s vitiligo? He just said, “I know how parents react when their child gets vitiligo.” We tried all kinds of medications like homoeopathy, allopathy, naturopathy, UV rays, etc. My childhood was going to school, visiting doctors and then coming home and sleeping. I was not allowed to go out in the sun at all. People used to give me blank stares in public.
Were you always comfortable with your vitiligo? If not, how did you come on terms? What’s the journey been like?
PJ: I wasn’t comfortable with it for almost 8 years, I wore makeup to cover it up all the time, even for a small grocery run or if a guest had randomly showed up, I had to cover it up. I didn’t know a life existed without makeup. I was medically diagnosed with PCOS when I was 15, the cysts were in my fallopian tubes and after the surgery, I had an allergic shock, I was rushed to the hospital and obviously, I was in so much pain, so makeup was the last thing on my mind, I just wanted to get out of the hospital alive, it was a very scary period. Once I got out, I realised that I was treated just like any other patient. One day, I had to go buy backups of my Dermacolour, a concealer I used to cover my vitiligo. I stepped out bare-skinned into the sunlight and I just can’t express what I felt on that day. I felt sunlight on my bare skin after years. It was just a moment of self-reflection and then, I asked myself, “Why am I giving up such a liberating feeling?” It gave me the courage to come out with my YouTube channel to talk about my condition and slowly, I only started using makeup as a fun me-time session. 80% of the time I don’t even wear makeup.
AS: My dad used to tell me every night as I went to bed, “Don’t care about external looks because the day you become successful in life, no one’s going to care about the way you look.”At the age of 14, I went up to my dad and told him that I can’t do this anymore, I want to stop all the medications and daily doctor visits and that’s when I started living a happy life. I started focusing more on myself and my career. At the age of 21, the white pigmentation naturally spread all over my body. I’m currently 24, a digital creator. Over the years I realised that focusing on yourself and ignoring other people’s opinions is the key to growth.
Today, how do you feel about your vitiligo?
PJ: Today, I take my vitiligo as my biggest blessing. I watched this show called This Is Us and in one of the episodes this doctor tells the main character Jack to turn life’s sourest lemon into something that resembles lemonade, and that’s what I did. I’m able to take all my struggles head on and say, if I dealt with something being on my face for 14 years, I can really take on anything. It gives me power, it gives me strength.
AS: Before I would question myself about vitiligo but now I feel if I didn’t have vitiligo, I wouldn’t be this strong and confident. My parents had instilled that courage in me since I was a child. I just worked on it to be what I am today. My vitiligo is beautiful and I’ll always wear it proudly. It’s my way of showing that your skin doesn’t define you.
As a content creator, was embracing vitiligo a conscious choice? Why did you think that was needed?
PJ: It just came as naturally as possible, when I first came out with my YouTube video, I wasn’t expecting it to bring me where I am today, it just happened organically. I just want to be the big sister to anyone who struggles with their skin or their body – I want to let them know that yes, there are people out there who also look like you, you are not alone.
AS: In 2019, Humans of Bombay approached me to share my journey on a public platform. I was hesitant at first but it had always been my dream to inspire multiple people globally. Right after my story was out, I made my profile public on Instagram. I started receiving messages saying, “My mom puts hot wax on my patches thinking it will get cured”, “My family won’t let me pursue my dreams until I cure vitiligo,” “My parents and friends don’t take me out because they feel ashamed of me” and more. All these messages broke my heart. People don’t understand that vitiligo can affect someone psychologically and that’s why you should be there for that person instead of abandoning them. This encouraged me to create motivational content around vitiligo to spread awareness.
How do you define beauty?
PJ: Confidence. It’s hella sexy.
AS: I have defined ‘beauty’ myself and I don’t let society’s definition bother me. You can be of a different colour, size, shape, anything but you are your own kind of beautiful. Whether I was patchy or not, I had stopped focusing on my external beauty. I never covered my spots with makeup or wore clothes which covered my pigmentation. I always wanted the world to know I have vitiligo. I always wore my vitiligo with courage.
You’ve been a part of sundry brand advertisements. How does that feel? Are you satisfied with the representation, or do you think we still have a long way to go?
PJ: I mean, I didn’t expect myself to be on the cover of a magazine, ever. I had these dreams when I was a kid and saw actresses like Priyanka Chopra and Kareena Kapoor on the covers of magazines and aspired to make it as a model, and I did. I did that and so much more. However, we definitely have a long way to go. I’m not sure why just one person with vitiligo has to be in one campaign, why not diversify it as authentically as possible? We have so many upcoming models who have vitiligo, let’s bring all of us together!
AS: Winnie Harlow, the Canadian model, has always been my inspiration. Looking at her, I had manifested that one day I will model for a brand too and I am almost there. Manifestations do come true if you work towards them. I feel the world is evolving and understanding how brands should represent vitiligo models too but I still feel there’s still a long way to go. The beauty standards are defined in a way we are not a part of but I know this is going to change very soon because we are beautiful too.
What’s one thing that you want to tell to people who see you differently?
PJ: I’m glad you think I’m different, I always say, you are you and that is your superpower, and my skin is my superpower; it generates my strength, I really don’t care if people accept me or not, all that matters is that I accept myself.
AS: There are a few myths about vitiligo which I really want to change. People think it’s a disease, it’s contagious and it’s life threatening but that’s not true. We are just like one of you. Our skin may not look like yours but we are literally the same people as you. The only thing everyone needs to understand is that vitiligo can affect people psychologically and that’s why you should be there for them instead of abandoning them. #ViAreNotDifferent
Is there an instance that strengthened your belief in what you’re trying to do?
PJ: When a really cute follower of mine told me that seeing me on the Fastrack billboard was like ‘a personal win’ for her. It was just so uplifting that my journey isn’t just carrying my legacy but so many of us who have felt like we don’t belong.
AS: My turning point in life was looking at myself in the mirror one day and realising that I cannot associate my worth to the way you look. That’s the day I went and told my dad that I want to stop all the medications and live life to the fullest. Rather than looking for ways to cure myself, I started thinking of ways to inspire people. I wanted people to look at me and think, “If she can do this, why can’t I?” I also met so many people who were going through worse problems in their lives and I realised that it’s not just me but everyone is trying to overcome some obstacle.
What’s something you wish to tell someone who’s lacking self-love, self-confidence, and self-belief due to vitiligo or any other so-called imperfection?
PJ: It takes time. It takes patience, courage and strength to be able to tell yourself that you are going to love yourself no matter what, no matter how many acne scars, no matter how many stretch marks and no matter if I’m not at par with the social beauty standards. Let me tell you, “You are you and that is your superpower.” Live it, breathe it, say it everyday. Smile at the face of adversity and see how much you can grow.
AS: Perfection is found in accepting your imperfections. It’s easy to say this but I know how tough it is to accept yourself the way you are. Society has its own definition of ‘perfect’ and ‘beautiful’ but you have to ignore it all and define it for yourself. You may have many rough patches throughout your journey but use your weakness(es) as your strength(s) and show the world that you’re not different. Flaunt your flaws effortlessly.