What’s really behind your body issues

CariDee English is a model, actress, former winner of America’s Next Top Model, and psoriasis advocate
At the age of 5, model and actress CariDee English was diagnosed with the autoimmune disorder psoriasis. She spent years trying to hide her condition fearing what others might think if they saw the red, inflamed patches on her skin.
Today, she advocates for greater awareness of the impact of psoriasis on patients’ lives to overcome the stigma of living with a chronic skin condition.

I’ve always known I wanted to become a model. I’ve also always had psoriasis. Over the years, a lot of people have tried to tell me that my dream was unrealistic because I had a disease, but this just pushed me more. Psoriasis is a physical condition but many don’t realise that it gets covered up not only by clothing but a change in mentality.

My disease has shaped the woman I am today. I now own my psoriasis instead of having my disease own me but the fight was long and hard before I could overcome my fear of social rejection. Now, through my advocacy, I want others to see that beauty is more than skin deep.

Fear makes the stigma real

The fear was planted in me at the age of five while sitting in the back of my mother’s Mercury. I noticed a small rash on my leg and when I showed it to my mother, the look on her face was heartbreaking. I didn’t understand why at the time nor when a dermatologist gave it a name: psoriasis. All I knew was that I wanted to keep living my life and not have psoriasis be part of it.

As I grew older, my psoriasis grew with me. I realised why the strange redness had saddened my mother as my skin started to take over my life causing me to feel the need to change my personality to accommodate my disease.

When making a first impression, I tried my very best to be outgoing and funny as a form of self-defence mechanism so people would see me before my skin.

Forced to feel vulnerable and exposed by my disease, I’d wear long sleeves and pants to completely cover my body — even at the sweltering peak of summer.

And when I wanted to go swimming as a child, I put on several pairs of nylons to hide patches on my legs fearing what others would think if they saw them. I still got kicked out of the public pool once because the other parents were afraid my disease was contagious. Not only was I shamed because of my skin but this action also taught the other kids to fear my disease and to not go near me.

There was also the time when I went to play outside my house in a t-shirt. One of my neighbours saw the inflamed patches on my skin and called the cops. He assumed my mother was abusing me. It was brutal. From then on I learned never to wear t-shirts outside my own home, I kept myself covered.

At its worst, psoriasis has covered nearly 70% of her body.

I’ve often thought of fear as false evidence appearing real. What the parents and kids by the pool feared was getting my disease. Those of us who have psoriasis fear we won’t be accepted because of the disease. Although these presumptions are false, they have a very real and painful effect on psoriasis patients causing many to live in isolation.

To change this, it’s important to create awareness about what psoriasis really is. The most impactful change; however, starts within as we learn to embrace ourselves and give power to the positive influences in life.

Pushing past the fear

Something switched when I hit my 20’s. I was sick of having my disease calling all the shots. I wanted to go to the beach wearing shorts and a t-shirt. I wanted to take away the stigma of psoriasis and put a voice to it. And I wanted to be a model. Not just the model you see in magazines but a role model. To become that, I had to take back the power from my disease and place it somewhere else.

CariDee English won America’s Next Top Model in 2006.

I’ve learned to find confidence in allowing my positive instincts to have a louder voice than my fear. Throughout my life I’ve had people telling me repeatedly that I’d never make it as a model — even some of my closest friends and family. Negativity, however, is exactly what lights my fire. When someone tells me that I’m not enough as I am, it drives me to work harder to reach my potential. Let success and the positive nourishment that it can bring be louder than your fear.

I don’t believe in the cup being half-empty or half-full. I want my cup to be full and there’s so much to fill it with. Being able to express myself through art while pushing past the small fears creates a sense of fulfilment that builds me up to tackle the big challenges in life headstrong — including my psoriasis.

The fear still comes creeping in now and then. Sometimes I fear I won’t achieve my goals in life or I worry about my health, my family or whether my future kids will struggle with the same skin disease.

After so many years, even my mother felt the need last summer to cover herself up in the hot weather because of her psoriasis, and I had to tell her to roll up her sleeves. If my own mother is hiding her condition, I’m not really a good psoriasis advocate, am I?

“Thanks for the long legs and the skin”

My goal is for others with psoriasis to experience the sense of empowerment that I do today. Growing up, there were so many moments when people tried to shame me. No child should grow up feeling the way I did when I was told to leave the pool because of my skin: alone and isolated.

I’ve jokingly told my mother: “Thanks for the long legs and the skin”.

I truly am grateful now because I’m able to use my psoriasis as a source of strength. Instead of hiding it, I shed light on it. I even did a photoshoot a few years ago with a full flare-up covering most of my body. People knew I had psoriasis but very few had seen it, and I wanted to demonstrate that psoriasis shouldn’t be a source of fear.

We live in a digital age where people have unique opportunities to share their personal stories. There was no platform for that when I was growing up.

There is now and I get a lot of support and hope from engaging with the psoriasis community because it tells me I’m not alone. As a child, I felt I was the only person in the world struggling with this disease.

I encourage everybody to share their stories so together we become a voice of power to conquer the fear and stigma of living with a chronic skin disease.

By CariDee English