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Science
SKIN DEEP
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Dr Gillian Rice meets the Sri Lankan woman whose skin turned white.

Sunday 13 October 2002, 13.30-14.00pm

This is the story of a Sri Lankan woman who had to come to terms with the skin condition vitiligo, which caused her to lose the pigment in the skin over her entire body, leaving her as a white person.

Sarojini Ariyanayagam after her skin lost its pigmentation
Sarojini Ariyanayagam and husband Len Kaminsky after her skin lost its pigmentation

Sarojini Ariyanayagam developed vitiligo in her teens, which initially caused patches of depigmented hair and skin to appear. These grew in size and number until much of her skin had depigmented, leaving irregular white areas on her face, trunk and limbs which she either had to hide with camouflage make-up or leave visible for other people to gawp and stare at.

Hands with people of vitiligo
Hands of people with vitiligo

For many years, Sarojini tried treatments designed to make her white patches repigment, but nothing had a significant or lasting effect. When a dermatologist suggested she try a form of treatment that would remove the remaining pigment, she agreed, but developed itching "side effects", which in retrospect she believes were symptoms of her reluctance to begin the process of depigmentation. She was not, at that stage, ready to give up her dream of winning her pigment back.

Frustrated and angry about the lack of treatment and research, Sarojini began to look for others with the disease. Meeting people with vitiligo, and starting the "London Vitiligo Group", was the turning point in her ability to cope with the disease. It also gave hundreds of others the opportunity to come out of isolation and talk opening about their experiences of living with vitiligo.
Faces of people with vitiligo As a representative of this group, she went to Cuba where she tried a new type of repigmenting treatment. After some preliminary success with the treatment, she returned to Cuba and stayed there for three years during which time she regained about 50% of her lost pigment.

But on her return from Cuba, the pigment started to disappear, despite her efforts with a combination of treatments. Eventually, she began to accept that there was no point in fighting what was happening to her body, and accepted that full depigmentation was the only option left to her.
 Faces of people with vitiligo

She moved from London to America, and began treatment with a hydroquinone cream: after 6 months all her pigment had gone. Today, six years on, she lives in Miami. Here no-one knows her past. What they see is a white person, and as such she has even been privy to racist conversations.

In this programme, Sarojini unfolds the very moving and painful story of her long and difficult struggle to be comfortable with herself; to come to terms with people reactions to her startling appearance, the strange experience of losing her dark colouration (and with it, something of her identity as a "woman of colour"), and becoming a white person in white America. This is an extremely powerful, honest and enlightening story, including not only Saraojiniís story, but also commentary from her husband; a fellow vitiligo sufferer, and Maxine Whitton; a psychologist, dermatologist and doctor.

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