By Josh Saunders and Sarah Francis
A bullied student with vitiligo is celebrating learning to love her skin by turning it into art – making a world map, flowers and even a Van Gogh painting.
Ashley Soto, 21, from Orlando in Florida, USA, has found turning her white patches of skin into art has empowered her and helped her to embrace her vitiligo.
She was diagnosed with the condition that affects one percent of the world’s population, at the age of 12 when a porcelain spot appeared on her neck.
Within a year, it had spread to 75 percent of her body in spots and patches.
After being asked if she had ‘showered in bleach’ the teen hid her skin beneath long jumpers and jeans to avoid further ridicule.
But now, she’s turning her body into art by tracing her vitiligo, making a world map and a beautiful arrangement of flowers to Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night painting.
The designs can take up to three hours to paint and outline the melanin-free areas of her body, helping her to appreciate the beauty in her vitiligo.
Ashley said: “I never realised how beautiful my vitiligo was until I traced it with a black marker, it really helps to bring out the different colours of my skin.
“I discovered after drawing around my white patches my skin looked like a map, which I thought was really awesome.
“From there, I decided to start painting actual pieces – I did a flower one and after that I had a world map.
“Next I tried The Starry Night by Van Gogh, I tried to incorporated my skin into it as much of the painting as possible, it’s such an iconic piece that I needed help from my cousin to do it.
“Showing my skin has made me feel more empowered, I love myself now but there are always days where you’re not 100% there.
“I was always trying to find a way to look at my skin in a positive light, I couldn’t do that before starting this.
“Now what others would perceive as an imperfection I have made into something more beautiful and made it more accepted than before.”
Ashley’s vitiligo spread from a small patch on her neck to her entire body when she was 13-years-old and left her feeling insecure.
She added: “Within a year it had spread to every region of my body, especially my legs which was super noticeable.
“Vitiligo appeared aggressively everywhere, my legs, feet, arms, chest and face and the patches range in size, from little ones to big ones
“Around 80% of my legs are without pigment, I have maybe half-way up my knee, then you can see some of my original skin colour on my back it goes half way up so it ranges in size.”
After being bullied when she wore a bikini she hid her vitiligo affected skin beneath clothing despite living in Florida – an area so hot it’s known as the sunshine state.
Ashley said: “Once while in a two-piece bathing costume, a little girl asked me if I’d taken a shower in bleach.
“I was so shocked that someone said that to me that I cried and cried, I didn’t want to have the condition any more.
“It made me want to start hiding away from people and left me covering my skin, as I didn’t want people to make fun of me.”
In her late teens, she decided she would no longer be held back by her skin condition started to set herself daily challenges to unveil her skin in public.
Ashley said: “As I got older, I started to feel more mentally mature and became a stronger person.
“I started accepting myself a little more each day by setting challenges to go outside without a sweater and it progressed from there.
“Before I was on a road to self-destruction and knew I didn’t want to hideaway anymore, you have one life and so you have to live it as beautifully as possible.”
Now she’s showcasing her skin through her artwork.
Ashley said: “I will continue creating different pieces of art with my skin and hope it inspires others in the process.
“Soon I will be doing some glow in the dark markings which will be a real challenge but it’s very exciting.
“Thanks to doing this I’ve learned to accept myself more than I did before.”