Denise Chamberlain has been living with vitiligo, an autoimmune skin condition, since she was 10 years old. Photo: SWNS
When your skin isn’t looking its best, working hard to hide any imperfections is a normal knee-jerk reaction. But sometimes, doing so can make you lose sight of who you really are.
That’s what happened to Denise Chamberlain, 42. The Anderson, Indiana, native was just 10 years old when she noticed a white spot on her finger.
It was the first sign she had vitiligo, an autoimmune disease that causes areas of the skin to lose pigment.
Over the years, vitiligo patches spread to Chamberlain’s scalp, gums, feet, arms, and legs.
Even her face took on a large marking in the shape of a heart.
For three decades — until she was 40 years old — Chamberlain masked her face and hands with a “blanket” of foundation and concealer in a bid to hide her vitiligo.
She refused to leave her house bare-faced for fear of being stared at and suffered a panic attack the one time she didn’t put on makeup before running to Walmart.
First came depression, and then suicidal thoughts. Chamberlain estimates that she spent as much as $144,000 over the years on makeup — and an hour each day, every day, to painstakingly apply it.
“I didn’t want people to ask me questions and I didn’t want the stares,” she says. “It made me into a person who didn’t want to be noticed. That mask was everything for me.”
Removing her ‘mask’
Two years ago, in an effort to inspire a young girl she met through a vitiligo support group, Chamberlain worked up the courage to ditch her makeup for good.
“I was already at the door knocking because I wanted to come out, but that girl pushed me out of the door,” she says. “Now that I’m not wearing makeup anymore, I feel free.”
Today, strangers stop Chamberlain on the street to compliment her striking appearance. Her boyfriend of eight months regularly tells her she’s beautiful. And Chamberlain is 1 of 100 women starring in “Underneath We Are Women,” a photo book that celebrates diversity by showcasing women from all walks of life and all shapes, sizes, and ages.
“Denise speaks with so much passion about vitiligo and her experiences in living with it,” says Australian photographer Amy Hermann, who spearheaded the project. “She’s doing some wonderful things to raise awareness for people living with vitiligo, number one being embracing herself.”
One of many chronic skin conditions
As many as 95 million people worldwide live with from vitiligo, but there are other skin conditions — such as acne, psoriasis, and atopic dermatitis — that can also cause anxiety, depression, and other psychosocial issues.
The good news is that today, “imperfect” skin doesn’t need to be hidden away. Many skin conditions can be effectively managed, especially if they’re caught early on.
Although certain corrective makeups can help “normalize” your skin, they’re not always practical, points out says Dr. Tien Nguyen, a dermatologist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in California. Kids can find them tough to correctly apply. Men may feel awkward using them. “And once you sweat or get wet, they come right off,” says Nguyen.
A better course of action is seeking the help of a dermatologist who has tools at their disposal to help you.
Prescription steroid creams, ultraviolet light therapy, and topical creams that “turn down” your immune system can all help vitiligo.
When it comes to psoriasis — a condition in which skin cells build up to create thick, scaly patches — a category of drugs called “biologics” are also effective. These drugs alter how your immune system interacts with inflammatory pathways. According to Nguyen, with biologics, “you could have a 100 percent clearance rate.”
Biologic drugs carry the risk of some side effects, including a heightened risk of certain infections, and can be costly for some patients.
Prescription drugs are increasingly effective at calming down the red, itchy rashes caused by eczema. And even acne, the most common skin condition in the United States, doesn’t feel like such a lost cause.
“There’s a wide spectrum of acne treatments, from prescription topical and oral medications to in-office procedures for acne scarring, such as fillers and lasers,” says Dr. Meghan Feely, a board-certified dermatologist practicing in New York City and New Jersey.
While hiding a skin condition under makeup may be the fastest option, it’s better to find a long-term solution. “If we don’t treat the underlying condition but just cover it up, it’s like putting a Band-Aid on,” says Nguyen. “It won’t go away.”
And if it doesn’t, despite your best efforts? Like Chamberlain found, loving yourself “as is” is a beautiful strategy.