An international gymnast who confused her vitiligo for ‘bad tan lines’ has overcome the embarrassment of her white patchy skin to bare all in bikinis.
Dionne Lees, 21, from Livingston, Scotland, first believed the pigment-free patches that appeared around her eyes were caused by wearing sunglasses while sunbathing when she was 12-years-old.
After more white spots appeared on her body she consulted her doctor, who diagnosed her with vitiligo—a condition that affects one percent of the world’s population.
In public, people quizzed her about her unusual patches and treated her like a ‘monster’, with parents pulling their kids away fearing she was contagious.
Dionne, a rhythmic gymnast, was too embarrassed to show her spots in leotards during competitions, eventually leading her to drop out—despite representing at the Commonwealth Games and international level.
Her hospital prescribed steroid creams and heavy make-up to cover her patches, which she wore until three-years-ago when discovering vitiligo model Winnie Harlow.
Seeing someone proudly embracing the condition helped her to appreciate the beauty in being unique and different, which has led her to now being comfortable in bikinis and skirts.
Dionne, a casino worker, said: “I was 12-years-old when my vitiligo first spot developed, I was in Lloret de Mar, Spain and I woke up with white patches on my eyes.
“They were two big circles of white and the rest of me was really tanned, I had been wearing sunglasses while lying in the sun so I thought must have been caused by that.
“People used to mock me, asking if I had worn sunglasses for many years or whether I was wearing fake-tan, being young and very insecure I would never wear anything revealing.
“I have had people scared of me due to fear of the unknown, parents people pulled their kids away like I was a monster and then others asked if I was burned in a fire.
“As a teenager, it started to bother me, I went to see a specialist who talked about makeup brands to cover my vitiligo.
“I used the make-up every day and then steroid creams for seven years every night before I went to bed in the hope it would make my vitiligo go away but it didn’t work.
“I stopped competing as a rhythmic gymnast, because I had to wear a leotard when performing, but after developing vitiligo I became insecure and struggled to show my legs.
“I would try to find tights to hide my white patches, but ultimately I quit and missed out on something I loved and a lot of opportunities because I didn’t want to show my skin.
“It wasn’t until seeing Winnie Harlow a couple of years ago that my perspective of vitiligo started to change.
“To discover there was a model out there with the same skin condition as me was a real wake-up call and I started to realise that being different is a good thing.
“Now I love my skin, I have stopped all treatment from the hospital, don’t wear make-up to cover up and online I promote body positivity by posing in bikinis and shorts.
“Any opportunity I get to show off my skin I do it, whenever I can I will always be in the sun I love when I tan because it brings out my vitiligo even more.”
Dionne was diagnosed with non-segmental vitiligo at 10-years-old, which is a type of the condition where the pigment devoid areas of skin are symmetrical and mirrored on the body.
She admits to being unaware of vitiligo prior to developing it and her family initially feared the worst.
Dionne said: “We had never seen anything like it and as the week went on, I noticed two spots one on my back and the other one on my bellybutton both were identical spots, size and shape.
“Within a couple of weeks, it had progressed onto my legs, so I went to the doctor who told me I had vitiligo.
“At the time, my mother was crying, not knowing what it was she thought it was a type of skin cancer, it was a daunting moment.”
Dionne became insecure about her vitiligo as people stared and treated her differently, as well as being offered ‘treatments’ by her hospital.
She said: “When doctors spoke to me they spoke about ways to cover myself from head to toe, so no one else could see my vitiligo, where realistically there’s nothing wrong with it at all.
“Because of my own experiences and the approach that vitiligo was something I should hide, I developed more of a complex and felt it was something to be embarrassed about.
“I know if I have kids with vitiligo, I would like to help and teach them to love their spots, I’d reiterate that they do not need to cover their skin.”
Over the years, Dionne’s vitiligo continued to spread across her body but now instead of dreading more white patches, she embraces them and can’t wait for more to appear.
Dionne said: “It’s developed mostly on my legs, down my shins and my chest in identical patterns, my hips look like there is a white belt going around it and then circular patches around my eyes.
“They range from very tiny, almost half the size of the nail on your little finger, to large patches that cover my entire knee, then I have a belt of white skin and other patches too.”
“I feel so much happier and get emotional thinking how far I have come, I love the feeling.”
Since learning to love her vitiligo she feels happier, more confident and receives countless compliments for her appearance.
Dionne said: “Now I get so excited when I have a new spot that appears on my skin.
“For years, it felt like the only person in the world with vitiligo, even to this day I’ve never met anyone else with it.
“But since changing my perspective and being more open about my skin condition, I’ve found more people tell me how much they love it and that I pull it off really well.
“It’s redefining beauty, it’s not unusual to be different and is something to embrace these days.
“I don’t think I would be me if I didn’t have my vitiligo, I can’t even remember a time where I didn’t have spots.”