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How I Overcame Body Image Issues from Psoriasis

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How I Overcame Body Image Issues from Psoriasis

The summer after eighth grade, I noticed some dry, flaky patches of skin on my scalp. When they didn’t go away after a few weeks, I started panicking. I went to the doctor, but he didn’t know what it was. But they were very obvious along my hairline on the top of my forehead, and I was laser-focused on one fact: High school was about to begin, and I wasn’t looking my best.

Those early teenage years are such a pivotal point, when even the littlest things—let alone a visible skin disease—can really mess with your self-confidence. Determined to fix it, I went to multiple doctors. Most told me I had dermatitis (a skin irritation) and prescribed a medicated shampoo. That helped, but the patches never fully went away, so I tried to mask them with hair extensions.

When I was 16, I was finally diagnosed with psoriasis—an immune disorder that causes skin cells to multiply up to 10 times faster than they should, creating itchy, scaly patches. It took longer to figure out what it was because on my African American skin, my spots weren’t red and inflamed, as they would have been if I was fair skinned.

tikeyah varner,  psoriasis
Tikeya Varner has had to battle the body image challenges of living with psoriasis.

Tikeya Varner

Feeling completely exposed

When I got to college, patches started to develop elsewhere on my skin. I’d have a flare on my back, then it’d get under control. Then patches would show up on my arms, and when they went away, they’d show up on my legs. This happened all through college.

When it was time to shop for a fancy dress, I knew I’d not only have to find a dress I liked, but one that would cover my flares. Looking at dresses on a rack, I’d have to think, “I can show my arms, but I need to cover my back.” That thinking dictated what would buy. It was exhausting.

One day my senior year, I had a very bad breakout on my face—and there was just no way to hide it. I don’t think anything can prepare you for someone looking you in the eyes and asking, “What’s wrong with your skin?” I didn’t know how to react, so I cried.

It was hard to believe people could see me without seeing my psoriasis.

Having visible plaques (the technical term for the patches) on my face made it hard to believe people could see me without seeing my psoriasis. After all, how could they not see my plaques if the light spots all over my brown skin were so obvious?

My solution—which honestly really wasn’t a solution at all—was to avoid social outings as much as I could—not easy when there are projects to present, job fairs to attend, and plenty of parties to go to.

I even spent energy hiding my condition from my best friend—to the point that I’d change in the bathroom when we were getting ready to go out so that she wouldn’t see my plaques or blemishes.

It was so hard hiding something like this from her. One day, it just got too hard, so I opened up. She was immediately so understanding—and helped me realize that when she looked at me, my psoriasis wasn’t what she saw. This was a breakthrough moment, and made me realize that my disease was a way bigger deal to me than everyone else.

Reclaiming control

With the newfound support of my best friend, I decided to take charge. I started researching common triggers myself and discovered that stress and certain foods can cause flares. So I started changing my habits, especially learning to control high-stress situation—and it worked. That feeling of empowerment made me feel more confident and comfortable in my body.

psoriasis, tikeyah varner
For years, Varner wondered if psoriasis was the only thing people saw when they looked at her.

Tikeyah Varner

The year after I graduated from college, my mom found a walk sponsored by the National Psoriasis Foundation in Atlanta, where we live, so we went. Up until that point, I had only really talked my condition with a handful of people, but the event gave me the chance to connect with others with psoriasis.

That day was the first time I felt like I could truly relate to other people.

I suddenly was part of this group of people who knew exactly what I was talking about—they immediately became friends. I asked them what was working for them and talked about what was working for me too. We also chatted so easily about things that other people without psoriasis just don’t understand. It was liberating. That day was my second real psoriasis breakthrough moment: the first time I felt like I could truly relate to other people.

The following year, I started my own team and fundraised.

Accepting my condition

I’d be lying if I said I never wonder if my psoriasis is the first thing people notice when they see me. In fact, more often than not, that thought crosses my mind if I have a flare and I’m interacting with someone other than my husband.

tikeyah varner, psoriasis
Varner is now a mom—with a second child on the way—and doesn’t let her disease get in the way of her daily life.

Tikeyah Varner

Despite those insecure moments, I’m so much more confident than I was before. In fact, there are times I choose not to cover up my psoriasis—and when that happens, the feeling is pure liberation. In those moments, I may have psoriasis, but my psoriasis doesn’t have me.

I may have psoriasis, but my psoriasis doesn’t have me.

In the past year, COVID hasn’t been great for my stress, which as I now understand is a known trigger of psoriasis flares. At the beginning of the pandemic, the uncertainties caused me to have a pretty bad breakout. But now I prioritize making time for things that relax me, like taking a bath, deep breathing, and drinking green tea. As a wife and a mom to a one-year-old daughter (with another baby on the way!), I know stress is inevitable. But now I’m able to better manage it.

More than anything, my psoriasis has been a teacher—something that has shown me the importance of being myself. Now, I’m able to trust that my character will shine through any kind of flare.

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