Crimson Beauty: Coming to terms with the trials and tribulations of eczema
Illustration by Erin McPhee
The defining color of my childhood was red. My whole body exuded it: Angry, scaly, itchy, weepy patches of skin, bloody and painful, all over my face and my arms and my legs and my hands and creeping down my back. It was everywhere.It was impossible to escape from. No matter what soothing salves or creams I slathered on my ravaged skin, nothing seemed to work for long—before I knew it, the redness would return, more vengeful than ever. When I woke up in the morning, I saw flaming rings around my mouth. I could feel the bristles of my hairbrush caress the scratches across the back of my neck as I combed the knots out of my hair. Dressing myself was a nightmare: My vision was always flooded with red, red everywhereI looked, red that overtook all else and led me to choose the garments that would lend me the least discomfort and the most obscurity. All throughout elementary and middle school, I wore jeans and hoodies that hid my ruby red body every single day, soaring temperatures be damned.
“How come you’re wearing long sleeves?” my classmates would ask during recess. “It’s super hot out. Don’t you own any t-shirts?” I always looked away, hiding my sore-ridden face and muttering something about how I preferred sweaters. I hid under the shade of the oak trees in the park during the warmest months of the year.
People would avoid me, sometimes, as if my eczema were an infectious disease that could be spread by breathing the same air, by sharing the same space, by interacting with me; my mother, affected by the same plight and concerned about my well-being, warned me about minimizing my rashes and wearing clothing that worked to conceal the unwittingly self-induced patterns marking my body. “If you don’t cover up, you might hear some things you won’t like,” she advised. She was right. When I pushed up my sleeves in art class or rolled them up to wash my hands before lunch, I’d often get shocked and revolted looks from everyone around me. “Ewww!” “Gross!” and “Oh my god, what happened to you?” were just some of the remarks thrown at me from all sides almost every time I ventured to expose more than an inch of bare flesh. When I went home and soaked in an Aveeno oatmeal-infused bath every day after school, I felt like my body had betrayed me. I resented my crimson skin with all my might, and splashed water on my face to hide my tears from my parents.
Then, suddenly, a miracle. Slowly, slowly, some of the patches of unbearably itchy skin receded, and with them disappeared a fraction of the hated, off-putting scarlet rashes. Beaten back by the hormonal changes introduced by puberty, my once-severe full-body eczema lost more and more of its territory and fell back as the years passed. Once the war was over, it turned out that I’d gotten lucky and ended up only with a few irritating stress spots where the condition remained: The insides of my elbows and the backs of my legs.The rest of my body, while deeply scarred, settled into its natural, measured olive tone that had previously been hidden beneath a scarlet blanket. My mother noted excitedly that I could start showing myself off a little more;cautiously, I began to push the sleeves of my hoodies up more frequently. Sometimes, when I felt brave, I wore the clothes I’d wanted to wear for so long, but had refrained from because of the never-ending red: skirts, dresses, shorts. I began to experiment with my appearance in ways that I’d felt I couldn’t when my body had been consumed with eczema, and as I became more confident in my outfit choices while expressing myself through fashion, I grew to become more content with myself, my body, and my natural looks—scaly patches, scars,and all. It was as if my outsides had helped my insides develop: My confidence in myself and my choices to show off my body after years of shuttering it away extended to my inner self. I thought less about what others thought of my body and about the criss-crossing cardinal scratch marks and bumps along the backs of my thighs. Gradually, I began to let go of the idea that I needed to listen to anybody about my body; I tried as hard as I could to consciously abandon the notion that I should have to dress myself to make others feel comfortable.
Today, I still get a few weird looks every now and then when I’m wearing more revealing clothing: At the pool, when I’m out and about during the summer months, or at the beach. I’ve gotten stronger, though, and the years of torment by the Red Sea have taught me to be thankful that my condition isn’t worse. Now, when I get a weird look from a passer-by, I brush off the reaction and march blithely on my way—or, if someone asks me directly, rudely,and bluntly what is wrong with me, I curtly explain that “I have eczema” and move swiftly onto the next topic. My body is not something that others can criticize and comment on unsolicited, and their opinions are not something that should weigh me down. As a young girl, I let far too many people’s distasteful remarks about the carmine expanse of my outer layers cut straight to my soul; I let them dictate my clothes and listened to their commands to hide myself to avoid inducing the disgust and discomfort of others. I know now that this is not something anyone should have to deal with: Your body, your skin, is your own, and anyone who has a problem with that can, frankly, stick it where the sun don’t shine.
I wear tank tops now. I don crop tops, short shorts, and t-shirts; I wear whatever I want, whenever I want, and I’ve never been happier or more accepting of my body. My struggle with eczema is ongoing—sometimes it flares up in new areas or calms down and dissipates;there are good and bad days, and there are days when I revert back to my old uniform of jeans and a hoodie—but I’ve come to terms with it.I’ve grown comfortable with myself and who I am, and I’ve stopped cursing my genetics with the fervor that I once did. Although my scars will eventually fade, my eczema will never completely go away—it’s as much a part of me as my eye color—and because of that, it’s something that I’ve learned to celebrate. It’s taken yearsfor me to get to the point where I’ve finally realized that the only way to fully reconcile my relationship with my body and unlearn the harmful lessons I learned as a child is acceptance, and I hope never to forget the gravity of that.I love the skin I’m in, blemished, crimson, and scarred—or not.