Life

How I reclaimed my identity beyond my skin condition

What happens when your identity is determined by other people’s perceptions of you? We spoke to medical student Gemma Whyatt about living with a skin condition and reclaiming her narrative…

Identity is something you can spend years carefully curating. 

Maybe it’s your teenage years listening to your favourite music and dressing in line with the bands’ particular grunge aesthetic. Or perhaps your identity is informed by culture and the set of beliefs you grew up with.

But what happens when your sense of self is tied up with something superficial that’s out of your control? 

Gemma Whyatt is a medical student and photographer living with a rare skin condition called congenital melanocytic nevus (CMN), which results in birthmarks covering up to 80% of the body.

Here, she talks about how she reclaimed her identity.

Dealing with growing up 

“It’s always really difficult when someone says, ‘Tell me your story.’

“My condition didn’t really affect me much as a child because my family were very good about it. If anyone asked me at school, I just used to say, ‘These are my brown patches, I was born like this.’

“People assume I was bullied as a child. That makes me sad in itself. It’s true that a lot of people who look different tend to be bullied, but so are a lot of people who aren’t. You can be bullied or not bullied for any reason.”

“I found that any more unpleasant or ignorant comments are just that – ignorant. People might think my condition is contagious or something to be worried about health-wise, but it’s not. Once people know that, it’s fine.

“I used to wear long sleeves and high-necked tops and scarves. I ended up getting five scarves for Christmas every year because that’s what people associated with me. In the end, I stuck out more for wearing scarves in hot weather instead of normal clothes!

“These days, I don’t use clothes and accessories to cover up my CMN. I’ve even chosen a pair of clear Specsavers glasses that actually show off my face instead of concealing it.

“It’s great that people like Lydia Blackshaw, who designed the frames, are starting to understand that people want to celebrate and not hide their identity.”

Discovering exposure therapy

“A turning point for me was going to Spain with a pen pal. Her family were so lovely. We went on a trip to the beach and I was quite visibly nervous about it and didn’t want to take my jumper off. 

“My friend’s aunt made me feel so accepted and less worried about things. Later that year, I went on holiday again and wore a bikini on the beach. I was quite nervous, but nothing terrible happened. It was like exposure therapy.”

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“Some guys came up to us who were doing parkour on the beach and they all greeted me. I thought, ‘Oh no, a group of teenage boys coming towards me – what are they going to do?!’ But they just said, ‘Hi, Gemma.’

“I thought, ‘If a bunch of teenage boys can be OK about it when I’m at my most nervous, it’s fine.’ You work yourself up in your mind that people are staring at you and you wonder what they’re thinking when really people don’t care that much.

“They’ve all got their own things in their own minds and I’m not what the girl across the street looks like. So, why should I be making things awkward for myself?”

Reclaiming the narrative

“Purely out of interest, I went to a university lecture on the psychology behind skin conditions. I went up at the end to ask the lecturer a question and before I even said anything, he started giving me unsolicited advice about my skin condition.

“He said, ‘You’re going to be a doctor – you have to be bare below the elbows, so you should think about having the moles on your arms removed. How do you expect your patients to have confidence in you if they think there’s something wrong with you?’ 

“I was really surprised and offended by that. I’ve worked as a healthcare assistant for years, so I’ve worn short sleeves in hospital all the time.

“The only people who say anything are usually those with dementia and they’re just curious. One patient told me I looked like an astrological map; another one thought I’d made a really odd tattoo decision.

“I was so offended that someone whose speciality is skin psychology could say something like that to me. It’s not encouraging and perpetuates the insecurities people like me have.”

“These days, I’ve learnt to reclaim my narrative. When I was younger, if I saw someone staring at me I’d feel really angry and ashamed. But that’s not helpful. That’s reinforcing the idea that there’s something wrong with me.

“My mum used to say that if someone stares at you, just smile back. Show them there’s nothing to worry about and you don’t need them to look at you.”

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“So, that’s what I do if someone looks at me now. But I’m always happy for people to ask me questions about my skin. The reason people stare or make comments is because they don’t know what CMN is.

“I’d much rather explain to someone what it is. Then they learn something and it can break the ice.

“It’s all about raising awareness and educating people, because it’s quite a rare condition. After all, there are lots of other rare conditions and I’m sure the same goes for them, too.”

Finding solidarity 

“I’m still getting used to challenging myself. For example, this dress is quite low and I’ve only worn one like this once before for the ‘How Do You C Me Now’ exhibition [a collection of 30 photographs of people with CMN].

“It was a small space with a lot of people who have an understanding of the same issues as me, so I decided to be brave and wear something that shows the full extent of my CMN.”

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“It made me feel proud. Being in that environment, where we were all celebrating people with that skin condition, was a really lovely feeling.

“The movement towards accepting and celebrating people’s differences in all sorts of ways is really encouraging.

“Those with insecurities will feel a lot more confident and encouraged if there’s someone they can relate to in the media.

“That’s the main reason I started doing modelling jobs. I thought if I’d seen these pictures of someone like myself wearing whatever clothes they want without feeling ashamed, it would have made a world of difference to me when I was a teenager.”

Gemma wears glasses designed by Lydia Blackshaw, who is part of Specsavers new range Design Collective. Lydia created her range of glasses to show off the wearer’s personality and character. 

This summer, Specsavers is supporting fresh design talent with the launch of its Design Collective. Created by four students, the unique collection of 14 glasses and sunglasses draws on their personal inspirations to design a range celebrating individuality, encouraging everyone to wear their specs with pride.

This shoot took place at Brick Lane Gallery

Gemma wears: Look 1; shirt by Whistles, trousers by Topshop Boutique, trainers by Converse, Look 2; dress by Whistles, trainers by Adidas, necklace by Alighieri, Look 3; t-shirt by PSWL Proenza Schouler, blazer by MM6, jeans by Agolde, trainers by Vans, Look 4; t-shirt by MM6, jeans by Charles Jeffrey, trainers by Adidas.