Conrad Murray, the doctor responsible for giving Michael Jackson his fatal cocktail injection, last week declared that that Jackson's "skin whitening condition was a lie". Murray claims that Jackson did not actually have Vitiligo, a chronic skin condition where the skin loses its pigmentation in patches, appearing as uneven skin tone. Jackson had previously mentioned the condition as an explanation of why his skin tone seemed to be becoming lighter over time.
Many people had not heard of Vitiligo until Jackson spoke about it, but I had. My parents had a friend who had it, mostly on his hands and arms, so I grew up knowing this was a real condition that made people look "different". But this family friend was not the King of Pop who had to answer to the world about his 'unusual' appearance. He was a neurosurgeon, so people cared more about what he could achieve with his hands (such as drive his kick-ass Aston Martin, oh, and save lives) than what they looked like.
Despite understanding what a true skin condition could look like, as a teenager and then a woman, I believed that my own uneven pigmentation was a big deal -- in fact, my biggest beauty flaw. I certainly don't have anything similar to Vitiligo, but I do have areas of darker pigmentation on my face (mostly around my eyes), and I found myself at a young age being scrutinised and scrutinising myself for something that is very common in women with Indian skin.
Over the years, I was told by every make-up chick in every department store that I needed to do something urgently about the "dark circles" around my eyes. I was told in my teens and twenties that I needed to buy topical creams and concealers, consult a dermatologist -- do anything and everything to be rid of the pigmentation I was born with. I even had a friend teach me how to stack on so much concealer to eradicate the pigmentation that I actually had to purchase a foundation one shade lighter to match it. Only then did she express her relief: "Thank goodness, it was driving me nuts that it looked like someone had punched you in the eyes."
Occasionally, I would speak up and argue that this is my pigmentation; it's just how I am and I don't understand the big deal. But the pressure was everywhere, constant, relentless, to even out that skin tone. On YouTube, there are hundreds of thousands of tutorials to teach you how to cover up your "imperfections". The Holy Grail of perfect skin tone has been a saturated subject in women's magazines for decades. It's a big thing in Asian countries to appear as "bright" and flawless as possible, with skin brightening creams and techniques being a multi-billion dollar market. And so, it's become an inherent part of my thinking when I evaluate my skin.
I know I'm not alone. Most of us, from every race, have been conditioned to think this way. American singer, songwriter and producer Alicia Keys made headlines recently for daring to go out in public and actually perform and hit the red carpet, make-up free. If you really think about why merely wearing the skin you have when you wake up in the morning (like most men do) is so freaking brave and inspiring, you realise that this is insanity. But still we do it.
And then just like that, Canadian fashion model Winnie Harlow sparked a revolution in me in one instant on Instagram. I came across a photograph of her; a proud woman with pronounced Vitiligo all over her, including her face. I Googled her to find out whether it was a gimmick for a fashion shoot, because you know fashion can be insensitive like that, and discovered that not only does Harlow have Vitiligo that she does not cover up, it is actually her trademark. Discovered by Tyra Banks, and a contestant in America's Next Top Model, Harlow is enjoying a successful career in the very industry that has traditionally espoused the beauty standards that caused her to be bullied for her appearance as a child.
Harlow has taken the pigmentation shame game to a whole new level by basically smashing every stereotype and barrier. Harlow not only embraced her appearance in defiance of traditional opinion, she has become an advocate for self-acceptance. In 2011, Harlow made the video "Vitiligo: A Skin Condition, not a Life Changer." In 2014, she gave a TED talk on her experience, and did the same at the Women in the World Summit in 2015. She does not consider herself as suffering from the condition; she is the ultimate poster-child for being comfortable in your own skin -- literally.
Harlow's attitude, at half my age, is revolutionary to someone like me, who has spent most of her life vacillating between the belief I should be proud of my skin and the belief that I need to cover it up. But Harlow is not torn. She has chosen to rise above letting her skin define her in any negative way -- a move which transcends both race issues and beauty barriers. Her brilliant approach has given her the freedom to live her life and love herself just the way she is.
Harlow is living proof that you can have it all -- you can be yourself and be a winner, too -- which is why Winnie is the ultimate winner.