GEMMA TIPTON: A PATCHWORK OF UNCONVENTIONAL BEAUTY
Journalist and Feminist, Gemma Tipton, on the day she found out she had a skin complaint she would be living with for the rest of her life. Vitiligo.
When something’s not quite right, you tend to dismiss it, while you can. That paler patch under my arm, and then another – to begin with it was like knowing and not knowing something at the same time. But the patches were growing, and then I noticed one on my hand, and then more. It looked like someone had spilt acid across my fingers, but it wasn’t painful. I went to the doctor. The doctor referred me to a specialist.
The Irish health system is simply terrible.
I could see a specialist in about a year’s time. Or one in the next month, for several hundred pounds (this was before Ireland joined the Euro). The thought of something creeping across my skin, or perhaps even under it, that I didn’t understand, was increasingly disturbing, so I spent the money.
But as I sat in the specialist’s office, and read upside down as he looked up my complaint in something that wasn’t titled “your bumper book of skin diseases”, but really should have been, I got angry. “Ahh yes, Vitiligo,” he said, “that’s what you’ve got”, before prescribing a cream and waiting for me to leave.
Here’s a useful tip: if you’re ever going to see an expensive specialist, or even your regular doctor when something’s worrying you, write down a list of questions.
I got my notebook out, and didn’t give up despite his increasing levels of pissed offedness. What is it? Did it make me more susceptible to skin cancer, I wanted to know? What were the triggers? Did diet have anything to do with it?
Maybe I should have got a gig as a highly paid specialist, because he clearly hadn’t a clue. On the other hand, I have a feeling I’m too ethical to fleece people that way.
The cream was useless. I looked it up with my Dad when I got home. It only works with a course of UV light, and then it doesn’t really. Vitiligo might be an auto immune condition, they’re still not sure, but whatever it is, it causes you to lose your skin pigmentation in patches. Stress is a trigger, according to the internet, and cabbage may be too. One website said I should avoid crab. Another broccoli. Yet another said that diet had nothing to do with it. It’s frequently symmetrical, and can spread, as fans of model Winnie Harlow will know, across your face.
But Winnie Harlow wasn’t around back then, and I felt scared and upset. It’s interesting, as we grow up, gently (and not so gently) nudged into routines and ideas of beauty by family, friends, magazines and media, that we don’t also learn skills to deal with the unexpected. The logic is that if you eat well, exercise, use the right products and always, always moisturise, the “right” sort of beauty will be yours.
But what if you have an accident? An illness? What if you actually get old…? My changing skin tone was out of my hands, but the minute I fully understood that, I had another realisation: I’m me. I might end up with white patches, anywhere on my face and body. I might not. I might have an absorbing and reckless adventure and gain a scar or two, and I might not. My hair might fall out, and my hands might indeed look like acid has been sprayed across them, but does that make me, or anyone else, less of a person?
No. Our faces and bodies come to be a record of our lives. Illnesses, health, mountains climbed, horses ridden and trees fallen out of. They carry sleepless nights and spa detox breaks, beach holidays and too long spent in front of a screen, but they’re fully and one hundred percent ours.
These days I tend to forget I have vitiligo, until the sun comes out, and then, when it does, I’m reminded how many rays I’m getting by the contrast. I’ve come to see it as part of me, and I’m even rather fond of it. I think there’s nothing like a spot of white to show off a tan.
Hating any part of yourself is destructive and deeply painful. Loving it is better, and the chance to revel in whatever it is that makes you differently you is one of the most amazing things that life can offer. I’d still like to punch that specialist though.