By Clarissa Tan and Chuan En Tan
“Why don’t I look like one of those pretty girls?”
Growing up, Rae Fung often asked herself this question whenever she looked into the mirror, comparing herself to the models portrayed with flawless skin and beautiful figures on television and magazines. Juxtaposed against them, all she saw in her reflection was a defect.
For as long as she can remember, Fung has struggled with atopic dermatitis (AD), a chronic skin disorder that makes her skin dry and itchy. Red blotches would cover her body, from her neck and joints down to her legs. Because of this, she was constantly consumed by insecurities about her appearance.
Dry, itchy, and inflamed skin is a very common symptom of AD – and it’s considered a minor one. More severe cases of AD can result in blisters with pus that leaves a burning, stinging sensation, and rashes that flare up to the point where they start affecting the joints.
This can be physically damaging to the point where one is unable to relax in their own bed. Quality of life is significantly reduced, as the condition can cause one to wake up multiple times in the middle of the night.
The discomfort caused by AD is exacerbated in hot and humid climates like Singapore's, where eczema symptoms can flare up more easily.
According to SingHealth, AD is the most common type of eczema, and it affects 21 per cent of Singaporeans — around one in five people.
Timothy Ng, a 26-year-old part-time student at Republic Polytechnic is one such person. He has had AD since he was in kindergarten, when the condition first developed on his arms and feet.
This makes the simple motion of walking a painful one for Ng.
For those living with this chronic skin disorder, the damage is not limited to their physical well-being. It affects their mental body-image and self-esteem as well. It is a constant mental battle between the person and their body.
Fung recalled feeling ugly and insecure about her own body. The combination of self-judgement and pain produced by her eczema made her reluctant to get out of the house. Slowly, she began to lose hope that her eczema could ever be healed.
For people with eczema, the stress this mental battle creates can spark more outbreaks, turning it into a vicious cycle.
Hiding from the world
“The main reason why I didn’t feel good enough was because of social stereotypes and social standards of beauty that made me feel like I needed to have a flat stomach and look perfect before I could have a beach body, go out and wear a bikini,” said Fung.
In her junior college years, she was so conscious of how she looked that she would put on a full face of makeup even for a trip to the hawker centre.
It wouldn’t be long before the constant application of makeup on her already fragile skin triggered the worst flare-up she had ever experienced, which lasted for six months in 2019. That incident became one of the major turning points in her life.
Fung realised that if she hid at home because of her eczema, she would be missing out on the things that she loves, like emcee gigs and networking training.
“I was forced to accept myself, go out and do the things I loved without makeup,” she said.
“That gave me an opportunity and I took it, because if I didn’t take that opportunity it means I could have just stayed at home all day and continued thinking I looked ugly going out of the house without makeup and looking red.
But that (opportunity) gave me the chance to realise that people can connect with me despite having eczema and my eczema doesn’t matter in that sense.”
One such moment occurred during a networking event. While talking to other attendees, she found herself focusing on what they had to say, instead of thinking about how she looked to them.
It helped her realise that people were not too concerned with how she looked.
“Actually, I feel most of the time it’s just us judging ourselves, people are too concerned about their own lives to notice,” Fung said with a laugh.
“When you focus on helping others, your career, and things that actually matter, you will slowly just not care about your eczema and how you look.”
Taking care of one’s mental health
Fung said the turning point in her eczema journey was also a breaking point, when she realised she needed to do something.
“If I continue putting myself down, nothing is going to happen and I’m not going to heal. So I decided to cut away the things that didn’t help my body.”
The first thing she cut was makeup. She also started to read up more on eczema and how to manage the condition.
Gradually, she also learnt to deal with the negative voices in her head telling her that she would never heal from her eczema, or that she would not get the opportunities she wanted because of how she looked.
Adjusting her perspective allowed her to deepen her connection with those around her, which in turn helped her to focus on the things that matter: her physical and mental health.
In time, she also started to feel less self-conscious and more confident.
“Generally I'll say the happier I am, the less I have an outbreak,” Fung said.
Beyond her newfound focus on her well-being, Fung has also found a new purpose in life.
Starting her first business — which focused on coaching and emceeing — led her to meet other entrepreneurs and mentors, something for which she credits her newfound mindset. She said:
“Because you don’t care, and you think about the thing that you’re doing (back then it was focusing on training and speaking, things I loved), I attracted people who were also as passionate and purposeful.”
“They saw potential in me that I didn't see in myself,” said Fung. “That helped me to take the focus away from my body as I focused more on building my business and serving others instead.”
While Fung does still receive unwelcome stares from strangers, a “heck-care mentality” is what she advocates, choosing not to overthink such situations.
In her words: “Whoever is staring at me, I don’t even know them anyways. They’re not my friends, so it really doesn’t matter.”
Paying less attention to strangers and what they might be thinking also means paying more attention to the constants in her life, like her friends and family.
The journey to healing
Aside from a change in one’s perspective, finding the right treatment that works for you is also key to seeing an improvement in one’s eczema, said Ng.
Despite consulting different skin specialists for his eczema, Ng felt that their advice was not helpful.
Ng saw many skin doctors and each gave him the same generic advice: apply moisturiser and steroid creams to alleviate skin dryness. Nevertheless, his eczema did not improve.
Instead, it got worse, and started affecting his joints, causing him uncomfortable and sleepless nights.
It was through doing his own research that Ng found out about the elimination diet, which he now follows, avoiding specific foods that worsen his symptoms.
Following an elimination diet involves eliminating specific foods and substances that could potentially trigger sensitivities or allergies, according to WebMD.
They would start by avoiding common allergens like milk, eggs and soy, before gradually reintroducing a new food every few days to see how the body reacts to each one.
Ng said: “I think it is important to do research but the information out there may not be true so you really have to understand whether the condition people are talking about online is related to you.”
What Fung and Ng agree on is that it is important to moisturise regularly and keep one’s environment clean, as dust or allergens can irritate the skin.
Applying moisturiser twice a day should be the minimum for those living with eczema, especially after showering and before bedtime. Ideally, moisturiser should be applied three to four times a day to the whole body, as this can prevent eczema from spreading to other parts of the skin.
In order to have a restful sleep, Ng says cotton gloves should be worn after applying the moisturiser just before going to bed, to lock in the moisturiser and prevent scratching while one is asleep.
The importance of self-worth
Fung’s message to eczema patients — or anyone who feels embarrassed about the way they look — is this: “Choosing the metric in determining your self worth is important.”
“Where is your self-worth built on?” Fung asked rhetorically.
“If it’s built on others’ opinions of you, then you’re in a very dangerous position because that means that their opinions can change and your self-worth will waver, so you want to build your self-worth upon a solid foundation that can’t be changed, which is your core values and priorities.”
Ultimately, those struggling with eczema should surround themselves with positive influences on their journey to recovery. Fung said: “Allow your loved ones to love and support you. Over time you'll realise that if others love you for who you are, you can too.”
Most importantly, never give up hope that your eczema can be cured.
“I always believe that there must be a reason why I have eczema and there is always a way to resolve this. Doctors always tell me that my eczema is incurable but I still believe that there is a possibility that it will get well,” Ng said firmly.
This article was produced as part of Republic Polytechnic's media practicum module collaboration with Mothership.
Top image courtesy of Rae Fung and Timothy Ng