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Real Life

How love conquered one woman's vitiligo insecurities

Kannagi Shanbag, 26, from Auckland, NZ, was diagnosed with the skin condition when she was 16. Here, she tells Take 5's Mitchell Jordan her story.

You don't realise how beautiful you are
I lay alone under the palm trees, sweating in 45-degree heat while the turquoise ocean glistened before me. I was on holidays with friends in Goa on India’s west coast, but it felt more like a scene from a nightmare.
As my girlfriends splashed about in the waves having fun, I was wearing a long skirt to hide my legs. My face was heavily covered in make-up which was smudged and running due to the heat.
“The water’s perfect. Why don’t you come join us?” my friends begged. I shook my head stubbornly.
Looking at the smooth, untouched skin of all the bathers was a haunting reminder that I could never be like them.
At 16 I had noticed a tiny white spot on my chin and another on my leg. It turned out to be something called vitiligo, a condition which causes patches of skin to lose their pigment.
It didn’t seem so bad at the time. At school I'd always been a smart, confident girl. I dated boys, had loads of friends and loved life. But over the next two years the ugly spots spread across my face. My confidence evaporated.
Kannagi with her mum before she developed vitiligo
I was too embarrassed to be seen out. I stopped being asked out by boys.
By the time I was 18, most of my arms and legs were white.
I’d tried everything to make it better - laser surgery, steroids and homeopathy. None of it worked.
Kannagi has learned to love her skin
As I began volunteer work at a vet’s, helping animals soon became my passion. I decided I wanted to study veterinary science and enrolled in a course.
I also met a man named Parth. We both had the same love of animals and started to spend more and more time together. He didn't seem to care about my skin.
He was so understanding and supportive when I told him about how ashamed I’d once been. He knew from his aunt’s experience just how embarrassed vitiligo makes people feel.
“You don’t need to wear make-up,” he assured me. “You look pretty without it.”
We started dating. We even got our own pet cat, Poldy.
I was happy to be following my dreams in veterinary science while Parth worked on his photography. This was the happiest I’d ever felt.
But one night when I was out with a friend a man walked past me in a pub. His eyes glowed menacingly, alerting me that something was up.
‘Maybe he’s just had a bad day,’ I thought.
The man didn’t let me out of his sight. Contorting his face as though he were vomiting, he looked at me, pretending to be sick.
‘It’s your skin making him feel like that,’ the voice inside my head said.
Rushing outside, away from everyone, I burst into red-hot tears of shame and ran back home to Path.
He was shocked to see me so distraught. I wasn’t normally one for crying.
“I hate it! I hate it!” I yelled.
Parth looked confused. He had no idea what I was talking about.
“This!” I continued, pointing to my skin. “Why can’t it go away?”
The feeling that I was a freak was still lurking deep inside me. Was that all that anyone saw when they looked at me?
“Calm down, Kannagi,” Parth said repeatedly, wrapping his arms around me. “I love your spots - you’re a beautiful person inside and out.”
Still, I doubted I’d ever learn to accept my condition completely.
But Parth was insistent.
“You don't realise how beautiful you are," he said. "Let me take some photos so you can see. No one has to see them.”
I couldn’t have done it with anyone but Parth.
As I took off my clothes and sat on our bed, naked, I barely noticed that he was in the room, clicking away on his camera.
When he showed me the pictures I could look at them and feel proud. This was the real me!

If other women got to feel as comfortable with their bodies like this, why shouldn’t I?
Using some of the pictures Parth took, I started an Instagram account and came into contact with others all over the world who had skin conditions.
Many of them were still battling the same demons I once had.
“Share your feelings,” I tell them.
For the first time, I truly felt proud of how I looked. It was like I was taking control, not caring what anyone else felt.
I want to tell everyone with this cruel condition that we are really no different from anyone else. Vitiligo is just skin-deep.

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