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Mirror Mirror On The Wall

The other day when I saw a photo of me playing with our dog Wilbur, I was momentarily surprised to notice the extent of my vitiligo. During summer months, areas where I have remaining skin colour tan, creating greater contrast between pigmented and unpigmented areas.

It occurred to me that being startled to see my vitiligo in a photo is a result of having programmed myself years ago to avoid looking in mirrors. At 45, I'm thankful to no longer be as emotionally handicapped by vitiligo as I was at 19 when it first began and through some of my 20s. Though I wish I could more freely enjoy the outdoors on sunny days without all sorts of sun gear, I recognize and give thanks for all that living with vitiligo has taught me.

But getting back to the the thought on mirrors - because it was exceedingly difficult for me to process my ever-changing appearance through my 20s, I avoided looking closely at myself in mirrors. You might wonder how this is possible with mirrors being virtually everywhere. It's quite simple to do, really, you keep your gaze off yourself while in the bathroom and don't turn on the lights unless absolutely necessary. Our younger son has asked me on a few occasions why I never turn the light on when I'm brushing my teeth, shaving, and washing up - he continues to find it amusing and a sight of curiosity to see me shave and clean up in the dark. I tell him the truth, that it's an old habit that came out of being emotionally distressed about my vitiligo as a young adult.

Noticing the extent of my vitiligo in that recent photo made me think about when mirrors were invented, and what life was like when humans could only examine their appearance via their own reflection in water or perhaps in polished metals.

Historians generally agree that the first rudimentary mirrors used by humans were likely developed in the 1400s. In 1835, a German chemist developed a process for applying a thin layer of silver to clear glass, and once his technique was improved upon, it wasn't long before mass production of mirrors created a world where humans began identifying with their physical appearance.

I find this fascinating, that for most of human history, people went through life without a clear idea of what they looked like. Their sense of self - their identity - had very little to do with their physical features. Rather, I would imagine their identity was tied to the people they spent time with, the work they did, where they lived, and of course, what they thought and felt. Imagine such an existence for a moment and compare it to what we have today where technology has allowed our phones to become mirrors that record images and videos that can be shared with the world in a few taps - we can even add whiskers that move with our noses and animal ears that move on top of our heads!

Today, there is an epidemic of what psychotherapists call "the worried well" - people whose basic needs for survival are more than being met, but who are handicapped by depression and anxiety. Some might think that this is a stretch, but I wonder if widespread adoption of mirrors was ground zero, the harbinger of an epidemic of partial paralysis from issues related to self-actualization. If we weren't hyper-aware of what we physically look like, would we be as anxious, vain, jealous, petty, afraid, and covetous as we can be at times?

I think it's pretty clear that the less we focus on ourselves and the more we put our energy toward being of service to others, the more fulfilled we feel. This doesn't require that we neglect ourselves, only that we strive to value relationships and our contributions to this world more than we value how we look, or in some cases of social media use, how we appear to look. This isn't a manifesto being written in a cabin off grid. We are all living in the same matrix, and I am merely wondering out loud.

When our boys were tiny, I used to think about how they would react to one day realizing that my skin is different than most. Would they be embarrassed or ashamed of my appearance? Would they feel bad that others might make fun of them because of me?

One day when our older son Joshua was 8, he and I were standing around before one of his tennis classes and another boy came up and asked me why my skin is the way it is. I explained it to him like I always do with kids, giving the analogy of how some animals have different colours, and how it's the same with me, that it doesn't hurt, that I just look different. After the boy nodded and moved on, Joshua sidled up to me from the side, and without a word, wrapped his little arm around my shoulder and gave me a good squeeze.

That was the moment when I realized that I didn't have to fear our boys having a harder lot in life because of my appearance. It was the moment when I realized that both of our sons have real warmth in their hearts, and that they will attract plenty of goodness with their caring spirits as they walk through this world. It was the moment that marked an emotional turning point in my journey with vitiligo, the moment when I took a huge leap forward in feeling free of it. Healed by our 8-year old son's heart and his little left arm.

 
 

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Comments

One can not really avoid all mirrors. I was always taught to "like" the person I saw and to this day (70 years later) I always smile at the ever changing person in the mirror. Darkness or acceptance?
Kris

I would agree, and I am not suggesting that people avoid looking in mirrors. I'm a fan of being good to oneself and even trying caring self talk while looking in the mirror, as Louise Hay has made popular for many.

I heartily agree with your comment "the less we focus on ourselves and the more we put our energy toward being of service to others, the more fulfilled we feel." I have long felt that those acquaintances I have met who battled depression were always the same ones who could only talk about themselves and their problems. As for the vitiligo and the worry you had about your sons, allow me to share this with you. We have a family friend, classmate of one of our sons, who began visiting us a lot after high school, then ended up living with us a few years. After awhile, one gets used to whatever is on the face of a friend - mole, birthmark, or in your case and his, vitiligo. He was very self-conscious about it, but later on after he had married and had a couple of kids, he happened to grow a beard for a short time. That was the coolest beard I have ever seen! In the unpigmented spots, the hair was white, otherwise it was brown. It reminded me of a pinto marked horse (I grew up on a ranch). Really, I had not given a thought to his facial pigmentation for years until seeing that remarkable beard. If you ever choose to grow a beard, I would love to see a picture.

Thank you for such a thoughtful post, Sandi. I'm sure that your son's friend remembers your family with fondness, as there are few greater feelings than being accepted just as we are - how lovely that you did this for him.

I don't take a lot of photos of myself close up and in good lighting, but if such a photo ever materializes, I will be happy to share it. I have come to embrace my vitiligo in many ways, and this has become possible partly thanks to the kindness of many - I count you among them! - Ben

Dr Kim: Today's story was another taste of the perfection of your gift of sharing in so many matters that affect our lives. Thank you so much!

Thanks so much, Lee, your encouraging note means a great deal to me. - Ben

Hi Dr Kim
Thank you for sharing your experience. Have you tried avoiding lectins to heal vitiligo and has that worked? Appreciate all the blogs about food and exercises with clear instructions and demonstrations. You look amazing and vibrant. Best wishes!

I haven't tried systematically avoiding lectins - I've received a few other notes about lectins since posting this, so I'll definitely be looking into it, though truth be told, I haven't done anything specific to try to cure my vitiligo in many years, as my instinct tells me that I'm closer to the end than to the beginning of my time here, and there are so many other things I am interested in doing with my remaining time. I appreciate you sharing. - Ben

Hi Dr Ben
you are only 45, it's all relative, you could live until you are 100! I hope you do so in continued good health.

Thank you Hilda! I will be thankful for every day. :) I wish you many wonderful days as well.

- Ben

How do you shave well in the dark? I would be afraid of cutting myself.

There is some residual light from windows and such, so it's not done in complete darkness. An old habit that I would probably be wise to correct! The thing is, I have very little facial hair and what comes in comes in slowly, so I only shave about once a week, so it's not something I think about too often.

Mirrors are such a double edged sword. On the one hand, you'd cross the street when you saw me some days, if I didn't do a quick reality check in the mirror before I go out for the day. On the other they can be overly distracting and draw us into narratives of should's and wishes for something impossible.

I think the key is perhaps not to get drawn into a narrative, as in do not expect to find the cover of Vogue or Equire in there. Those photo shoots take hours for a reason. Back before mirrors were invented and they weren't very good back then, I doubt anyone expected to look like a queen or a prince in the mirror. most people had funny features that we would hardly allow to pass these days like big warts or funny ears, and they were Ok with it.

So when I feel that tightening, "Take a moment breathe with your feet on the ground, and see how you feel," is what I always tell myself. That's what I liked about your story; "It doesn't hurt." I used to notice how I loved myself in the mirror more at the end of dance class. It is all in the mind. Now I like myself more, and I probably look a lot worse as I was a lot younger & way cuter then.

I really enjoy your newsletter and blog, and read it all the time!

Thank you Madeline! I appreciate you sharing.

- Ben

Dr. Ben Kim,

Thanks a lot for sharing your story with us. I wish you were my brother! Namaste.

My skin problems are the exact opposite of yours, Dr. Kim. Facial hyperpigmentation that started about 15 years ago that's been resistant to everything I've tried. So I'm familiar with the tyranny of the mirror. It's annoying but I'm relatively healthy, don't take any medications and have plenty of energy. So now at 56, it's a wash. I used to wear makeup even at home and definitely when answering the doorbell. But now my family is used to and actually used to hate that I wore makeup indoors. You and other commenters are right. Acceptance by those you love is healing. I was a counselor by training so I've seen first hand this kind of healing power. But the most powerful healing power is the one you are exhibiting here. Self acceptance. Self love. You'd be surprised (or maybe not) how rare this is. So now a days I accept the curious looks I get at the door and am grateful for all the truly beautiful things I get to enjoy in this life. Thanks for your examination of this topic.

There is beautiful energy in your writing S. Thank you so much for sharing. I find it is also healing to feel we are not alone in some struggle, and though our skin health challenges are opposite in appearance, the emotional journey has likely been similar, so thank you for helping others like me know we are far from being alone. - Ben

I absolutely love your occasional thought provoking post. While mirrors reflect some things and while people often see what they expect to see instead of how others see them, I believe some of the biggest negatives on how we see ourselves has been caused by those trying to sell their product (whatever it happens to be) and by us as a population buying into their beliefs. And because it starts at such a young age, we grow up believing whatever it is that we hear/read, etc. I have even lately found myself paying attn. to what society says is the right look, etc. and have called myself on it. However, on the reverse side of that is the expectation of some who will try to tell you that you must love their look because society says it is ok for them to love it themselves (Mostly this is in fashion and personal ways of dressing). We are all different and do not like the same things and we all need to realize that this is so and simply concentrate on those things that are less seen. As it has been said before, Beauty is only skin deep. And it is mostly what is below the skin that counts. Thank you Dr. Kim for sharing these thoughts.

Thanks so much for contributing to this conversation in such a meaningful say, Sandi. We can all benefit from the reminders in your post. - Ben