Tips for Building Self-Esteem When You Have Vitiligo

An acquired skin pigmentation disorder, vitiligo causes patches of white skin (macules) to form on the body. These patches can appear anywhere on the body and can spread, especially if untreated. While its symptoms aren’t dangerous, the discoloration associated with vitiligo can be harmful to self-esteem.

Because societies place so much emphasis on physical beauty, those with the condition may feel unattractive and self-conscious about their appearance. And because the condition can affect feelings of self-worth, people with vitiligo may experience social isolation or avoidance, as well as depression, anxiety, and social stigma from others.  

If you’re living with vitiligo, boosting your sense of self-worth can play a crucial role in managing the impact of the condition. This can involve taking steps to mask or manage the discoloration, or it might require learning to accept and even embrace the way you look. Though it isn’t easy work, there are innumerable benefits to restoring your self-image.  

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How Vitiligo Affects Self-Esteem

As with any condition that affects your appearance, vitiligo can be detrimental to self-esteem. Societies across the globe place great emphasis on physical beauty, and many people with vitiligo report feelings of unattractiveness while also experiencing real-world stigmas from those unfamiliar with or who have no understanding of the condition. Further, these issues can be compounded since the condition can spread unpredictably and rapidly.

In turn, this leads to social and psychological issues that may require treatment. These include:

  • Depression and anxiety
  • Social isolation and avoidance
  • Reduced quality of life

It’s important to note that self-esteem level itself is closely related to quality of life and mental health. Studies have shown that vitiligo patients who have a higher sense of self-worth are better able to take on the burdens of the condition. Clearly, then, doing work to restore your sense of self is essential.

Help When You Need It

Given the psychological and social impacts of vitiligo, it’s important for patients to be attentive not only to physical symptoms, but also to how they’re feeling. If you’re suffering from mental health issues or feel as if you’re struggling, be sure to enlist the help of your doctor as well as other mental health professionals.

Restoring Confidence Through Symptom Management

Generally speaking, there are two primary approaches to restoring confidence and self-esteem when you have vitiligo: figuring out ways to mask, cover, or treat affected areas and learning to accept the condition as part of what makes you who you are. In addition, finding support from family, friends, and others with the condition can help.

Ultimately, the best approach depends on the individual case, as well as the course of the disorder’s progression. In many cases—and especially among children and adolescents growing up with the condition—effective management and masking of the discolored patches can help restore a healthy sense of self.  

Cosmetic Approaches

There are a number of concealers, self-tanners, types of makeup, and dyes that can help cover affected areas. If choosing this option, keep in mind the following:

  • Use waterproof products.
  • Opt for self-tanners or dyes for longer-lasting color.
  • Use self-tanners with dihydroxyacetone.

Notably, studies have found these methods particularly successful for adolescents and children with vitiligo, for whom this condition can be particularly devastating.

Camouflage Therapy

Among the biggest concerns with vitiligo is sun exposure. Melanocytes, the cells that produce melanin, which gives skin its color and helps protect it from the sun, are lacking in people with vitiligo. This makes their white patches much more susceptible to sun damage and sunburn. Furthermore, especially if you have dark skin, sun exposure or tanning can make the white patches more prominent, which can affect self-esteem.

Keys to camouflage therapy—which aims to minimize this damage—include:

  • Wearing waterproof sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or more before any exposure
  • Seeking shade when out in the sun, and avoiding exposure from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
  • Wearing long-sleeved clothes made with thicker or darker fabrics

Medical Options

While medical treatment can’t “cure” vitiligo, it can stop its progression and work to repigment parts of the white patches. This may allow those with the condition to feel confident about their appearance. Options are many and include the following:

  • Topical steroids or calcineurin inhibitors: Applied regularly on affected areas, topical steroids and calcineurin inhibitors can help restore color and stop the disease's spread. Taking steroids, however, can cause side effects.
  • Light therapy: Also called phototherapy, this is the regular use of ultraviolet B–emitting lights on affected areas (typically two to three sessions a week are needed). This therapy may be paired with oral psoralen or other medications to spur results.
  • Surgery: If other treatments don’t work, surgically applying skin from other parts of the body can be attempted, a procedure called an autologous skin graft. Additionally, micropigmentation—a type of tattooing to recolor small areas, especially on the lips—may be attempted.
  • Depigmentation: Some patients may opt to have all the pigment removed from their skin, leaving them completely white. A better option for advanced cases, this gradual process requires applying special creams one to two times a day and can take from one to four years.

Learning to Accept Vitiligo

While working to reduce vitiligo symptoms and spread can be very helpful for building self-esteem, for some, keeping up with constant treatments and management is too difficult, expensive, or time-consuming. This being the case, another approach to building self-esteem involves learning to accept the condition.

In terms of popular culture and depiction, vitiligo first gained wide exposure when it was revealed that pop singer Michael Jackson had struggled with this disorder. Though mass reception was initially mixed, more recently fashion models and other media figures have opened up about having vitiligo, and media representation of the condition has grown.

Embracing Who You Are

With the perspective that vitiligo isn’t something to be shunned or hidden, a vocal coalition of patients, patient advocates, and caregivers promote acceptance and being able to embrace the condition. If you’re able to accept vitiligo as part of what makes you unique, the thinking goes, you can restore your confidence and self-esteem.   

Finding Support

Another means of coping with low self-esteem associated with vitiligo is finding support from family and friends, as well as others with the condition. The latter can be particularly helpful. Connecting with a wider community of people with this disorder can reinforce that you are valid and not alone.

What sorts of approaches can help? Here’s a quick breakdown:

  • Support groups: Meeting and talking with others with vitiligo, other skin disorders, or other chronic conditions—either online or in person—can help you cope with the condition. Seeing that others have shared experiences can help you find validation and beat back self-doubt.
  • Counseling: Especially in light of associated mental health challenges, it can be helpful to work with a therapist or counselor to develop a better self-image. Talk to your doctor about how you’re feeling, and don’t be afraid to seek help.
  • Patient advocacy: Another way to build self-esteem is to become an advocate for your condition and others in your shoes. Organizations such as Vitiligo Support International and the American Vitiligo Research Foundation are not only good resources for education, they serve as hubs for promoting wider visibility and acceptance of the condition.

A Word from Verywell

The effects of vitiligo on self-esteem can be damaging. Working to rebuild your self-worth should be an important aspect of care and management. Whether this means making efforts to manage the discoloration itself, or learning to embrace your appearance, the benefits of doing this work are undeniable.

With a healthier self-image, you’re less likely to face depression, anxiety, embarrassment, and social isolation. In turn, those who are better able to reckon with the associated low self-esteem yield happier and fuller lives. Since vitiligo doesn’t usually go away, the key is to figure out ways to not only survive, but to thrive with it.

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5 Sources
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