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Rock Scars helps Africans see beauty behind their skin conditions and scars

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By Maka Mutamiri
Valentine Mabaso, the founder of Rock Scars is advocating for inclusive representation of South African women living with skin conditions and scars. Chidiebere Ibe, a Nigerian medical illustrator also shares how the media can contribute to achieving equal representation for black skin conditions in the medical industry.

Battle scars can be a badge of honour for those who have fought in the trenches. For girls and women dealing with skin conditions and scars, their scars can be a badge of shame.

Beauty standards and representations in the media have reinforced painful emotions of rejection, fear and shame felt by individuals living with different skin conditions. In a world that is so bent up on labels, categories, and perfection, they can feel out of place.

Valentine Mabaso, a South African woman felt ashamed for many years of her childhood.

“When I was 13, I started developing pimples all over my body, spreading at a very fast rate” Ms Mabaso explains, “At first, I thought maybe it was just chicken pox or smallpox.”

Hoping to see the spots vanish, she stayed hidden at home for a few weeks. With no signs of improvement, she visited a local clinic in the village of Limpopo – a rural province in South Africa.

“I told them about the pimples and the first thing they thought was that I was pregnant,” she says still shocked by their conclusion, “They took the urine test which came back negative and gave me a yellow bath soap to use at home.”

With no medicine or cream to take, she saw no other option but to trust the soap they had given her. Unfortunately, the following weeks after using it were filled with more disappointment and fear as her spots started to spread to other areas of her body.

“I immediately contacted my mother who was living in the city at the time and told her everything,” Ms Mabaso recalls, “My mum said if we still didn’t get any answers after seeing a dermatologist then she would save up money for us to see a private doctor.”

Meanwhile, whilst on the road to being diagnosed, life as a teenager attending school with an unexplainable skin condition and scars was far from easy nor enjoyable for the South African.

She had to endure one of the most prominent challenges within schools – bullying.

“They called me tiger girl. They called me Ashtray and other mean comments with some of the teachers joining in as well,” Ms Mabaso states.

Psychologically and emotionally, this affected her. Even outside of the classroom, she was discriminated against by people who would refuse to sit next to her in taxis, fearing the worst and the impossible.

13-year-old Mabaso was in desperate need of a solution, a breakthrough.

After a series of appointments, trial and error with medicinal creams and other remedies, Ms Mabaso was finally diagnosed: “ When I moved to the city with my mum, she used the money she had raised for us to see a private doctor.”

“It was only when he ran some tests on me that I got diagnosed with a skin condition called Atopic Dermatitis,” she tells AWIM News.

Atopic Dermatitis (AD) also known as Atopic Eczema (AE) is a skin condition that causes the skin to become itchy, dry and cracked. Although it is not curable there are now treatments available to help ease the symptoms of patients living with the condition. Children are the most prevalent age group it affects but it can also be found among adults too. In South Africa, AD is still a pressing concern but medical literature on the condition is limited.

After finishing high school, at the age of 18, Ms Mabaso decided it was time to come out of the shadows and showcase the beauty of her skin: “I decided that you know what? I am exhausted. I’m tired. I wasn’t born like this, there’s nothing that I’ve done. This is how God made me and people must be okay with it,”

“I also need to be okay with it.”

With renewed confidence, she took a picture of herself, showcasing all of her scars.

The now 27-year-old believes: “Imperfections are exactly what makes us perfect. The word itself says I’m perfect.”

“I decided from that day onwards to speak boldly about my skin condition and embrace it fully,” she adds.

After posting a post about her scars on Facebook, she started to receive numerous messages from people who have also been facing challenges and discrimination because of their skin condition.

“They asked how could I be so confident and told me they wished to be as brave as I was too,” she says.

Reflecting on the 10 years of pain she experienced and how she overcome it, Ms Mabaso decided to create a community called Rock Scars in 2015.

“Rock Scars is a home for all people living with scars and skin conditions to have freedom and a place to fearlessly tell their stories,” the entrepreneur states.

From walking alone in her journey to finding a whole community of people ready to be seen for who they are, Ms Mabaso is devoted to representing and supporting African individuals by redefining the standards of beauty through her organisation.

Rock scars also act as a platform to create awareness of different skin conditions: “There are so many kinds of skin conditions and many of them go undiagnosed,” the norm breaker explains “People are not aware of them, some people think when you have a skin condition, it must be related to other diseases such as skin cancer, or even HIV or even AIDS when that is not the case.”

To help some of the Rock Scars members who are still undiagnosed, Ms Mabaso and her team partner with private doctors that can assist with prescriptions and medical assessments to ease the symptoms they face.

“Creating medical illustrations of different conditions is very difficult because we need reference photos,” Chidiebere Ibe, a Nigerian medical illustrator expresses, “This is because issues of skin conditions are not talked about enough and online, you don’t see pictures of them on black skin”.

Most known for his viral drawing of a black female fetus, Mr Ibe believes as a medical student that a solution to the lack of representation and the numerous undiagnosed patients in Africa is to have more stories being shared about African people living with skin conditions and scars.

“Having images of the patients would allow artists like me to achieve greater representation within medical textbooks so that doctors and nurses can understand the proper care needed to help these individuals,” he tells AWiM.

One of the initial steps Rock Scars does as a community is to run focus groups where different people with skin conditions and scars in South Africa come together to tell their stories. After that to help them build their confidence, they have a photo shoot to proudly showcase the imperfections that make them beautiful.

With over 21,000 followers and likes on Facebook, Ms Mabaso’s community of warriors is growing with more and more women coming forward: “Having females join us has been a great way to tackle the perception or rather misperception that women need to be flawless,” the South African shares, “if you don’t have flawless skin, you are not considered beautiful.”

Men with scars are typically associated with the idea of battle scars and the appraisal that comes with that notion. Whereas females are stigmatised for not meeting the ‘perfected’ image seen in the media and entertainment industry.

Shortly, Ms Mabaso not only hopes to do a tour around South African schools to spread awareness of skin conditions but also have a tv programme: “The ultimate goal for Rock scars is to have a TV show that can help us to reach as many people as possible so we can encourage people to embrace who they are instead of trying to fit in.”

For women living with skin conditions in South Africa and the African diaspora, an awareness and open-mindedness within society, the medical and media industry is key to breaking the emotional discrimination they face for being human.

“Scars don’t make you any less of a human, so embrace those scars for they tell how strong you are” word by the warrior herself, Ms Mabaso.

This article is part of African Women in Media (AWIM) Graduate Trainee Programme in collaboration with Fojo Media Institute