It’s fair to say that many young people have dreams for the future. And Mariah Perkins is no different in that respect: she wants to eventually become a profiler for the FBI. But the 20-year-old also harbors one more modest – and hopefully attainable – ambition. Specifically, she just wants to find someone who’ll love her despite the skin she’s in.
And Perkins has shied away from finding romance in the past, in large part because of insecurity about her appearance. She had first realized that her body was changing, moreover, when she was only 11 years old – and in ways that marked her out from her peers. At that age, Perkins – who is African American – discovered that one of her fingers had a conspicuously white patch on it; it was something that she didn’t take much heed of at first, though.
Still, Perkins was eventually concerned enough about the unusual feature to show it to her mom. Her mother didn’t believe that it was anything worth getting upset about, however. Then, over the subsequent weeks and months, more white spots started to show up on Perkins’ body. In fact, they increased in both size and number – to the point that they would eventually cover entire sections of the young girl’s skin.
Indeed, it was as if Perkins’ skin was beginning to lose its color entirely. There were pale patches covering her arm and her face – specifically under her nose and at the corners of her eyes. The white marks just seemed to be growing and spreading.
At that point, Perkins’ mother decided that a professional opinion was needed on her daughter’s mysterious condition. “When [the white spots] appeared on my face, my mom took me straight to the doctor,” Perkins recalled to the Daily Mirror in 2016. “He didn’t seem too concerned, but mom pushed for me to see a dermatologist.” And the skin specialist would reveal just what was happening to her.
“It was then I was told I had vitiligo, a condition that causes my skin to lose pigmentation,” Perkins continued to the newspaper. “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.” And Perkins’ concerns were perhaps for good reason. After all, her condition is one of which doctors have relatively little understanding.
Indeed, although there are as many as 50 million vitiligo sufferers around the world, medical professionals are still very much at a loss as to what causes this type of depigmentation. Vitiligo is believed to have a link to the autoimmune system, though; specifically, it’s thought that in those with the condition, melanin cells that determine skin color are destroyed by the body. It’s also hypothesized that vitiligo can initially be brought on by stress.
And though vitiligo is not in itself a threat to life, it can prove debilitating in other ways. In particular, the effects of vitiligo on the body can in turn hugely influence an individual’s mental state. And, sadly, that was the case with Perkins: her self-confidence was in tatters.
“Emotionally, it was hard,” Perkins told the Daily Mirror. “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. I never felt pretty or cute.” And the older she got, the larger the white patches of skin grew.
It was only when Perkins saw earlier photos of herself, however, that she noticed how advanced her vitiligo had become. Keen to disguise her condition, she then introduced makeup to her daily routine. In particular, she would layer heavy foundation onto her skin in an attempt to conceal its whiter areas.
“I’d spend about 45 minutes applying my makeup, making sure every bit of my face was covered and trying to make it look as natural as possible,” Perkins further explained. Indeed, no one but her immediate family saw her vitiligo. She even went to great lengths to avoid revealing her true appearance to friends.
Perkins felt uncomfortable wearing so much makeup, however, especially as none of her fellow students at school had any on. The cosmetics were a necessary evil, though, as her natural skin drew too much attention. But even when her white patches were concealed, the young woman still felt nervous around boys.
“I always felt very self-conscious about my condition around boys, and that held me back when I was younger,” Perkins revealed to the Daily Mirror. “I couldn’t hug people, no one could touch my face.” She added, “I was always so afraid of messing up my makeup and would check myself in the mirror constantly.”
Perhaps as a distraction, then, Perkins focused on her school work instead. And that effort ultimately paid off, with the bright teenager earning straight As. She’s even since gone on to university to study for a degree in sociology and criminal justice. Her family were concerned about how Perkins’ vitiligo would affect her college experience, however.
But Perkins’ loved ones needn’t have worried about the young woman. “I thought [college] would be scary, but it was easier than being in secondary school,” Perkins told the Daily Mirror, describing the transition as the best thing that’s happened to her. She added, “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.”
As a result, Perkins’ self-confidence has grown significantly. Indeed, though she’s yet to find the courage to go au naturel on campus or at the store where she works part-time, the 20-year-old now thinks nothing of running errands and inviting friends around without having applied a full face of makeup first.
What’s more, high-profile sufferers of vitiligo such as Michael Jackson and model Winnie Harlow have raised awareness of the condition. In fact, Perkins thinks that Harlow proves that you can have vitiligo and still look good. She also hopes that she’ll eventually be with a man who finds her attractive despite the discoloration of her skin.
“I’ve never had a proper boyfriend,” Perkins explained to the Daily Mirror. “I’d like to meet someone who accepts me the way I am. Someone I feel comfortable with without my makeup on. I can’t change my skin, so the person would have to love it and be supportive.”
Until then, Perkins is working hard in her pursuit of a career with the FBI. And while she has fears that her vitiligo will spread further, and even that it could affect children she may have in the future, she’s nonetheless adamant that the condition has ultimately changed her for the better.
“I wouldn’t be at all who I am today without what I’ve had to go through,” Perkins explained. “It’s opened my mind and made me think of things in a different way.” She added, “As a child, I used to blend into the background. But having vitiligo made me stand out from the crowd and forced me to become confident.”