"Loving The Skin You're In" — Meet The Model Showcasing The Most Beautiful Part Of Herself
Happy World Vitiligo Day!
We recently spoke to Malaysian model, Sonya Danita Charles, and discussed what it means to celebrate those with vitiligo.
29-year-old Sonya Danita Charles is an active and prevalent figure on social media. Born and raised in Kuala Lumpur, she now works full-time in content creation, and even works as a freelance model, having worked with notable brands in the country.
On a day that brings awareness to a condition she knows far too well about, Sonya's celebration of life in every aspect of its beauty, clears the table for dialogues that are merely skin-deep.
Described as an autoimmune condition where the skin loses its pigmentation, Sonya corrected some hearsay regarding what the public perceive vitiligo to be
"To break it down, our immune systems are attacking the skin cells because they think it is a threat, when it actually isn't," described Sonya to this SAYS writer. Globally, less than 1% of the world's population has vitiligo.
Gaining deeper insight, Sonya mentioned that vitiligo affects individuals differently. "Some people may only have it on their face, some may have it only on their hands, some can have it scattered throughout their body, others even have it in a symmetrical layout. It really depends on the person that has vitiligo."
A mistaken fact commonly circulated, Sonya stated that while many people believe vitiligo is genetic, it in fact, isn't at all.
"People can get it at any age, and it is not brought on by your genes. So for example, if a person with vitiligo has a child, it is not necessary that the child will also have vitiligo. It is tied to each person, their immune system specifically."
"It started as a very small dot on my face, and only began progressing when I was about 11 or 12"
While Sonya noted that her symptoms of vitiligo began at the age of eight, it was not until she turned 11, did she, and her family, notice how the spots had become much more prominent than before.
By the time she entered secondary school, they were the most evident they had ever been. "I looked like a different person every single year. It just kept changing and changing, it was crazy."
Having gone for multiple treatments to aid the condition, Sonya stated that the result of those procedures, did in fact, inflict adverse reactions on her skin due to the multiple regimens that were explored.
"When you're a teenager, especially as a woman, you have to get used to your body changing. Having to deal with your skin changing on top of that, was a whirlwind of an adventure. It affected me the most in high school, for sure."
The impact of public perception weighed on her at an early age. Describing the insensitivities of many, Sonya noted how not seeing anybody else who looked like her, made her feel 'not normal'.
"I've had people that would point, stare, make remarks, and ask questions. I've even had people ask me if I was burnt or if someone threw acid on me. Hearing that at a really young age impacted me deeply. I was trying to find stable ground, and build my confidence."
Sonya stated that the ingrained perception of 'if we don't look a certain way, we're not normal', gave her a need to feel like she belonged, though it was never fulfilled, "I was that one person in my school, that one person in my tuition centre, that one person in my sports team who looked completely different from everyone around me."
Sonya affirmed that kindness, sensitivity, and compassion, are so important when approaching a conversation with someone who's different, "I think people don't realise that someone with vitiligo may not be able to handle such a comment or remark. You never know how the message is being portrayed, or how that person is receiving it."
Through all the white noise, Sonya's support system, and determined attitude, kept her pushing forward
"My family is my biggest support system. I also have a close group of friends that never treated me differently. They always made sure that I did things I wanted to do."
Elaborating on that matter, Sonya recalled that if she had a fear, such as going to the mall or any public place, her friends and family supported her in living her best and truest life.
"I always told myself, it's not the opinions of others that matter, but the opinions of yourself. If others choose to look at you negatively, and you latch onto that, it can bring you down a road of mental health issues that would only be natural in such an environment."
Crediting believing in herself, and working hard when striving for her goals, Sonya asserted that using negativity and transforming it into something positive, will only push you into a brighter and better direction.
A well-known model with multiple years of experience under her belt, Sonya's love for fashion drove her to do more than just study it
Intrigued by fashion from a young age, this budding interest drove Sonya to pursue her undergraduate degree in it. Yet, not everyone was as supportive to her calling, as she explained, "A lot of people used to tell me when I was younger that I'd make a great model — but it was too bad that I had a skin condition that limited me."
Nonetheless, when Sonya received a modelling opportunity in 2018, she jumped onto the chance immediately. Worried about the media portrayal that would eventually ensue, she explained that the overwhelmingly positive response brought her comfort and assurance.
"Taking the first step was the push I needed. I put my dream on hold for so long, but after that, knowing there was no turning back, I just became more comfortable in many other aspects of my life."
When discussing her modelling inspirations, Sonya referenced America's Next Top Model contestant, and Victoria's Secret Model, Winnie Harlow, "I really look up to [her]. She opened the world's eyes to people who have vitiligo, and that despite the condition, you can do anything you set your mind to."
Sonya noted that her experience in the fashion industry has been a fruitful one along the way. Yet, one of the most pleasant experiences she's had, dates to when she originally dipped her toes into the modelling world.
"My very first runway for KL Fashion Week in 2018 is among the highlights of my modelling career thus far. The experience was crazy, I had so much jitters. But the moment I stepped onto the runway, I took it all in; It was so liberating, I felt free."
But while breakthroughs have been made over the past few years, Sonya was forthright about the progress we still need to conquer
When discussing diversity in every aspect of its realm, Sonya said that while it is important to implement opportunities for diverse representation, it has to begin at home.
"Parents should be teaching their children from a young age that it's okay to see someone who is different. Kids grow up to become teenagers, teenagers grow up to become adults, and their actions will be based on what they were taught as a child."
Tying such a message to include the perimeters of body positivity, she voiced that people have to go further than just preaching nobility online, and to start putting these words into actions.
Being the change she hopes to see, Sonya's most ambitious venture has been the creation of an association bringing awareness of vitiligo to the public
Regularly involved in philanthropic work, Sonya stated that throughout Malaysia's 65 years of independence, there has been no organisation that was built in support of, and to cater to those who have vitiligo. Ready for the challenge, Sonya was steadfast in opening Vitiligo Association Malaysia, a support group creating awareness and advocating for Malaysians with vitiligo.
"It's important to feature Malaysians who have vitiligo — their backgrounds, their origins, their challenges, their lives."
Describing her long-term goal for the association, Sonya stated that she would like to eventually create a physical space that's not limited to those who only have vitiligo, but a space where all walks of life can visit as a safe house.
"Ideally, it would sort of be an ashram, but a more jovial ashram that is! If you're having a really bad day and want to come chill, you have somewhere you can escape." Sonya also expressed her intentions to have counselling sessions for those who need it, when the space gets up and on its feet.
As for recent projects embarked on by the association, Sonya was happy to announce the launch of their first campaign, that culminates to a very special presentation on their page, today!
"It's a photo series that includes kids, teenagers, and adults alike, who have vitiligo. Writing their stories and speaking out on their experiences, we actually have a video exhibition that's premiering today!".
With future goals to platform these beautiful people in the public eye, Sonya has her foot on the pedal to keep creating awareness and advocating for Malaysians with vitiligo.
Click here to view the Vitiligo Association Malaysia page, and watch the video.
Closing out our conversation, Sonya had this message to share with those intrigued by vitiligo:
It's always fine to be curious, but how you structure your curiosity does matter. Always be kind, and compassionate.
To keep up with all her future ventures, follow Sonya on her Instagram page.
This Malaysian model is giving us all the #GirlPower we need: