Natalie, who’s 36 years old and from Essex, is a Changing Faces campaigner; she has vitiligo.
I will wear shorts on holiday now and although people will stare and sometimes make comments I can cope with that.
Natalie was only two years old when her mum noticed that she had a light patch of skin on the back of her hand. Over time the light patches on her skin continued to develop on her face and her legs. She was eventually referred to Great Ormond Street Hospital when she was four years old and was diagnosed as having vitiligo, a long-term condition where white patches develop on the skin.
As a young child no one really mentioned her vitiligo but Natalie said that all changed when she was about nine years old.
“Some kids at school said they were scared to touch me in case they caught it. They could see I was different and they didn’t really understand why. I was very shy and I wouldn’t put my hand up in class in case people noticed my vitiligo. I had a very small circle of friends.”
Natalie says the support of her family made a real difference.
“My parents were very protective of me, especially my dad. Looking back they wrapped me up in cotton wool and they would answer the questions that people sometimes asked when we were out in public. One day I was on a bus and a lady asked if I had been burned. They gave me the confidence not to cover up and encouraged me to be proud of my body.”
When Natalie was in her teens she moved to a new area and a new school which she found very difficult.
“I did make a new set of friends but it wasn’t easy. By my teens 70% of my face and body was covered in white patches and I was very conscious of what I looked like. Summer was a real struggle for me – I would become very anxious and wear long sleeves and trousers even when it was boiling hot. During my time at secondary school I wanted to just rip off my skin and blend in. My mum was amazing. She was so patient and put up with all my outbursts and tantrums.”
Natalie says even after school her vitiligo continued to affect her confidence especially as she started looking for a job.
“I really lacked confidence. My vitiligo was very obvious on my hands so when I went for job interviews I was really conscious of shaking hands. I felt they were staring at my vitiligo and it made me so nervous.”
Although she’d tried many treatments and creams when she was younger, it wasn’t until she was thirty years old that Natalie tried light therapy.
“I had mixed emotions about trying the light therapy but my vitiligo was so severe and I was so fed up. I had the therapy for 12 months and it did help. It gave me the confidence to open up to people and I started to tell my story. I have noticed that my vitiligo has started to come back over the last few years but I’m in such a different place now.”
When it comes to dating and relationships Natalie has had mixed experiences.
“I have some really strong friends who have never judged me but I never felt comfortable dating. I would keep my hands under the table and I just didn’t feel attractive. However on one date one person held my hand and said how beautiful I was. He had a cousin with vitiligo and totally understood. I realised that sometimes I assume people are thinking bad things about me when they’re not.”
Natalie is now a campaigner for Changing Faces and a trustee at the Vitiligo Society as well as writing her own blog to raise awareness. She says that telling her story and talking to others about her condition has changed how she feels about herself and has made her a much more confident person.
“I am very positive about life now. I decided a few years ago that I couldn’t live my life based on what other people think. I will wear shorts on holiday now and although people will stare and sometimes make comments I can cope with that.
“I think it’s so important that we do see people who look different in public life. I know when I was younger that I would look through the typical teenage magazines and I never saw anyone who looked like me – they didn’t have spots or a skin condition – it showed this very narrow view of what ‘beauty was. I think that is starting to change but we still have a long way to go.”