“I used to cry myself to sleep and constantly think about what people had said and think maybe I should cover it for an easy life,” says Bryony Bateman, who has suffered from psoriasis since she was 16.
But now the 23-year-old, from Cambridgeshire, chooses to wear clothes that proudly show the patches of sore and flakey skin she experiences, in order to “raise awareness and educate people” about the condition, which affects around 1.8 million people in the UK.
“I realised quite quickly not many people know what psoriasis is,” she explains. “So by having mine on display I could create a conversation about it, remove the elephant from the room, raise a bit of awareness and move on.”
Psoriasis is an immune condition where the skin replacement process speeds up, meaning the body takes just a few days to replace skin cells that usually take 21-28 days. The result can be red or sometimes silvery flakey skin, that can cause both physical and psychological distress.
Although various treatments are recommended to ease symptoms, there is no known cause or cure for the condition, which Bateman says actually helped her overcome her body confidence issues.
“I wasn’t self-conscious for long – to be honest it just wasn’t an option for me because as soon as I knew this was a lifelong illness and I was literally going to have it forever, I knew I was just going to have to accept it.”
“I’d do anything to hide it. I hated looking at myself in the mirror, I just felt ugly."”
But others take longer to regain body confidence after developing symptoms. Poppy Challinor, 23, from Cheltenham, struggled to come to terms with her psoriasis throughout secondary school and into early adulthood after being diagnosed at the age of 13.
“By the time I was 20, I was covered 90 per cent of my body with psoriasis. Meeting new people was difficult, I felt so ashamed of my skin. I didn’t want anyone to see my psoriasis so I wore long-sleeved tops in summer, covered myself with fake tan and make up – I’d do anything to hide it. I hated looking at myself in the mirror, I just felt ugly,” she recalls.
But things started to change for Challinor when she started university and new friends didn’t treat her any differently when she had a flare up of facial psoriasis.
“It made me feel like I didn’t have to hide. I felt so lucky I was being accepted, even when looking different,” she says. “Now at the age of 23, I accept my skin. It’s made me who I am today. I surround myself with people that brush my flakes off my clothes and hair, and aren’t afraid to look, touch or talk about my psoriasis. My friends, family and boyfriend accept me for me, which in turn helped me.”
Meanwhile Chris Dowd, 65, from North East Derbyshire, has taken decades to shake off body image concerns. He began to experience psoriasis aged 12 and bought shorts for the first time in his life this summer.
“I kept my legs covered even on hot Greek beach holidays. It was very uncomfortable but far less uncomfortable than seeing everyone staring at my psoriasis covered legs and talking ‘behind their hands’ about what they had just seen,” he recalls. “I felt totally embarrassed and shamed. It was almost as if I feared to show my legs in case it spoilt their holiday.”
He credits recent messages in the media that people don’t have to have “perfect” bodies with helping him feel confident enough to buy shorts, as well as “the support of a loving wife, who said ‘you are what you are’”.
“That was a big boost to me. I wouldn’t say I am more body confident, but I have got to the point where I think that if people don’t like what they see it’s their problem not mine,” he says.
“I have got to the point where if people don’t like what they see it’s their problem not mine."”
Chris Clement, 37, from Swansea, also struggled with his psoriasis in school, but has now learned to cope with the condition with humour.
“I’ve tended to avoid swimming if I’m honest. I’m quite a confident person though, so sometimes I’ve just thought ‘sod it’, and got in the pool,” he says.
“Once on holiday there were some kids hogging the poolside jacuzzi, I knew how to get them out... I walked past their parents and stood for a few seconds by them, then walked up to the jacuzzi and got in. Seconds later the kids were called out of the jacuzzi by their parents. Empty jacuzzi was mine!”
But regaining body confidence after a flare up isn’t easy. Oliver MacArthur, 29, from London, says he’s still struggling: “It’s awful when people look at it and I’m constantly seeking reassurance that it doesn’t look too bad. My biggest body confidence trick is covering up. I’ve tried everything to try and make my condition better but nothing seems to have worked so far.”
Both Bateman and Challinor say becoming part of body-positive communities on social media media has helped them to accept and celebrate their skin.
Bateman, who uses her Instagram and YouTube accounts (@bryneenee) to share her experiences of psoriasis, says: “I post photos of my psoriassis because the more people see it on social media or in public the more ‘normal’ it becomes and then other people won’t feel self conscious lack body confidence.”
Challinor, who also shares photos on Instagram via @thegirlwithpsoriasis, adds: “Through Instagram, I have met so many people who also have psoriasis and its helped me feel as though I am not alone. We are part of a community which share things with each other, like make up tricks, products we’ve tried that work for us, and share stories with each other.
“I am more than my skin, and I don’t feel the need to tell people about my skin in the way that I used to. My skin is just a part of me.”