When she was only 11 years old, Mariah Perkins noticed a strange white patch on her skin.
It seemed like nothing, but the discolored area started to bother her. She showed her mother, who quickly dismissed the patch as nothing out of the ordinary. Then the patches began to spread.
“When it appeared on my face, my mum took me straight to the doctor,” Perkins told The Mirror in 2016. He didn’t seem too concerned, but mum pushed for me to see a dermatologist.”
The dermatologist examined the young Perkins and made a diagnosis with certainty. “It was then that I was told I had vitiligo, a condition that causes my skin to lose pigmentation,” Perkins said.
“To begin with, I was just relieved to have a diagnosis, but the more I found out about it, the more I began to worry.”
Perkins could take comfort in the fact that vitiligo is mostly harmless—she simply has to take a few extra precautions when she goes out in the sunlight to avoid a nasty burn.
But vitiligo can take a toll on mental health. Some people with the condition get very shy, self-conscious, and even depressed. The progression of the white patches associated with vitiligo is unpredictable.
They may spread throughout life, they may have rapid periods of growth followed by long stretches of inactivity, or they may show up one day and then halt altogether. The uncertainty is part of the stress of living with vitiligo.
Still, it is not a painful condition. It doesn’t threaten the physical health of the person who has it. Many people with vitiligo just shrug their shoulders, accept it, and get on with life.
As a kid, and even through her teenage years, Perkins was not one of these people. She struggled to accept her differences. For Perkins, vitiligo was a life-altering condition. She felt self-conscious, particularly at school during her teenage years.
Although doctors do have some theories, they’re not entirely sure why vitiligo occurs, and there’s no known cure. Many patients simply cover up their white patches with makeup.
That was Perkins’ plan, but it had its difficulties. At school, people would notice the makeup. That would cause stress, which would cause her vitiligo to act up, creating more white patches.
“Emotionally, it was hard,” she said. “At first I was in denial and didn’t think about it too much, but when my teens hit, I just wanted to fit in, so it was a struggle being different from other people.”
Then Perkins uttered a sentence that will break your heart.
“I never felt pretty or cute,” she said.
Her photographs tell a very different story; she’s a beautiful young woman. It just took her a lifetime to be able to believe that herself.
Perkins felt like she was completely different from the other kids, and over time, her condition became more visible. The patches expanded over large areas of her skin. To counteract the vitiligo, Perkins just did what she had always done: applied more makeup.
“I’d spend about 45 minutes applying my makeup,” she said. “It got to the stage where I wouldn’t let anyone see me without makeup, apart from my close family. If I went for a sleepover at a friend’s house, I’d sleep in my makeup and wake up early, before anyone else, to touch it up.”
She also checked herself in the mirror constantly to make sure that her makeup was where it was supposed to be. It was a difficult life.
Then Perkins went to college. Suddenly, everything changed.
That’s an experience that lots of people have, but for Perkins, it was absolutely transformative. Her classmates were able to help her become her true self just by accepting her for who she is. When you’ve grown up with people bullying you, that is a powerful thing.
“I thought it would be scary, but it was easier than being in secondary school,” she said. “I made lots of friends, and they all told me I didn’t need to wear makeup at all. At university, people seem to be more accepting and positive.”
If Perkins reminds you of someone, that’s because she has a hero. Her hero isn’t an athlete or a head of state. She’s just a woman who won’t let vitiligo get in the way of her dreams.
Winnie Harlow is a hugely successful model, and she doesn’t look like the stereotypical runway beauty. She was an admired contestant on America’s Top Model in 2014. After leaving the show, she got a plum gig as the brand ambassador for the clothing design house Desigual.
Years before she was beamed into living rooms all over the United States, Harlow achieved her own sort of internet fame. She was featured on a YouTube video called Vitiligo: A Skin Condition Not a Life Changer.
In the clip, she talks candidly about what it’s like to grow up with vitiligo.
“When I got older, it got harder,” Harlow said in the video. “Because, you know, as kids get older they get meaner, so I went through a lot of bullying, and like people calling me zebra and cow and stuff like that, so it was really hard growing up.”
When you have to pass through the crucible of bullying, you typically only have two choices: You can break, or you can emerge stronger than ever. Harlow took the second path. By the time of her 2011 YouTube appearance, she was proud of herself and comfortable in her own skin, no matter what shade it was.
When she thinks about her skin condition, Harlow has a habit of waxing philosophical.
“If God wanted me to be black, I’d be black,” she says in the clip below.
“If he wanted me to be white, I’d be white, but he chose for me to be both. An original. So I guess that’s the way I am supposed to be.”
Perkins adores Harlow.
“It’s nice to have a role model,” she said of her Top Model hero. “I just wish she’d been around when I was younger. It can be a real problem for little girls with vitiligo, because they don’t feel pretty. Plus, it’s opened people’s eyes that you can be beautiful and have this condition. At least a couple of people a week ask me if I’ve seen Winnie, and what I think about her.”
By the time she was 19, Perkins was beginning to step into acceptance of her true self. Once she got to college, Perkins decided that she didn’t need to conceal her face any longer.
She truly became a hero along with Harlow, inspiring all of us to give ourselves just a little bit more acceptance, no matter what the world thinks.
For Perkins, the attitude of acceptance she found at college was a chance to start a new life, a life in which she didn’t have to hide her face.
While on camera, she wiped off the makeup, revealing all of her vitiligo patches to the entire world for the first time.
Perkins’ story shows why the phrase “beauty is only skin deep” is only partially right; beauty is everywhere, in all body types and all complexions. Watch her incredible reveal in the video.