When Ash Soto was 12 years old, she noticed a small spot appear on her neck. It resembled a sun spot, so she ignored it until another one appeared a few months later. Soto was eventually diagnosed with vitiligo, a common condition that causes patches of skin to lose pigmentation.
"I didn't know how to react because I had no knowledge on what vitiligo was or what would happen to me," Soto told A Plus. "I remember my mom sitting there crying and I just sat there confused and scared. I didn't know how much my life would change from that moment on."
And things did change. In the past, she considered herself to be outgoing. She was a cheerleader and loved going to the beach in her Florida hometown. But as the vitiligo continued to spread, Soto started to feel differently about herself and her body.
"I excluded myself from everything and everyone. I tried to be happy and smile, but over time I was filled with so much self-hatred for myself that I stopped doing the things I loved," Soto said. "It was so bad, I couldn't even look at people in the eye anymore and I just wanted to be inside all the time. I developed anxiety and depression."
Like so many others struggling with the condition, Soto tried to cover it up because she didn't want others to look at her differently. She constantly wore long sleeved T-shirts and jeans.
"A lot of people don't know this, but vitiligo also causes certain spots of your hair to grow in grey and that happened to me, so I faced the challenge of watching my physical appearance change. It was the hardest thing I've ever been through." she said. "I remember looking at girls in magazines or on social media and I would be so jealous because they had perfect skin and I didn't."
But now, at 21 years old, Soto has a completely different outlook on herself and her appearance, thanks to support from her family, the body positivity movement, and social media.
"I remember I would write down on a paper everyday repeating to myself that I am beautiful, I am strong and I am enough," she said. "I told myself I didn't have to meet society's standards to be beautiful and unique. I started challenging myself with doing things that I wouldn't do, for example: going out without a sweater or wearing shorts. I let all those negative thoughts go and just started looking at life with a positive outlook."
Instagram played a huge role in helping Soto feel comfortable in her own skin. She made an account to post selfies that showed off her impressive makeup skills, but hid her vitiligo. That is, until the day she decided to show her followers a photo that revealed her condition.
"The thought of sharing my whole self on social media was a paralyzingly one. We have all experienced or seen how cruel people can be, especially behind the safety of a keyboard," Soto said. "It took me a long time to share my true self. I decided to post when I felt like I was strong enough and mentally able to handle the reaction, which ever way I was meant to receive it."
The reaction she got was overwhelmingly positive. Many people reached out to share their own experiences with vitiligo or their struggle with body image issues in general. The supportive response was enough to encourage Soto to share more photos that showed her vitiligo.
Now, Soto hopes to influence others to find self-acceptance and promote self-love.
"I want to continue to bring awareness to vitiligo and the importance of body positivity. I hope to continue doing what I'm doing now which is inspiring others to accept themselves for who they are," she said.
A few months ago, Soto started a project she calls The Marker Chronicles, which aims to prove that "we are all art." She uses markers to outline her vitiligo and show that her condition has made her body into a canvas. She has also replicated the idea with paint.
"This project has been a way to show that what others might perceive as your flaws are actually what makes you beautiful and sets you apart from the rest," she said.
As she reflects on her journey to self-acceptance, Soto is very proud of how far she has come. "Everyone has days where they pick themselves apart and find things to be unhappy about. I choose to focus of the parts of myself that I love and I live a much fuller life because of it," she said.