Wherever room Khadija Mahmoud enters, she turns heads with her ivory skin. Online, she turns thousands of eyeballs with her hijabi fashion content that promotes modest, yet stylish women’s attire that aligns with Islamic principles.
Dida, as she is better known, has, however not always been comfortable in her skin. She spent many years hiding it from people because she suffers from eczema (atopic dermatitis), a non-contagious skin condition that causes exceptionally dry, itchy patches all over the body and face.
It's only recently that she decided she was done with hiding her condition and started talking about eczema alongside her fashion interests.
“Eczema has been my life, it is my normal so being open about it is no longer an issue,” says Dida.
Dida has lived with the condition since childhood. Some of her family members also have eczema but hers was classified as severe. “As a child, the first question I would get is 'What’s up with your skin, can I touch it?’” says Dida, 35.
The stigma and negative labelling took a toll on her self-confidence.
“People have these weird ideas about skin conditions. Some think that it is because you are unclean,” says Dida.
There were few people she could relate to which left her feeling extremely lonely. “I hated it and used to question why God would give this to me,” she says.
Stephanie Siro, a digital marketer has also experienced the sting of stigma. Like Dida, she was also diagnosed with eczema as a child. It took several hospital visits before the frequent rashes were finally explained.
Walking in public, she says, made her very self-conscious because people kept staring and some would call her, “a crocodile,” says Siro, 25.
Quality of life
Eczema is a complex condition without a cure. To improve their daily quality of life, people suffering from it have to be keen to avoid triggers, and when they have flare-ups, moisturise and take steroid medications.
Triggers for a flare-up vary from individual to individual but common allergens include food, dust, pollen, different fabrics, fragrances, soap and even extremes in weather temperatures.
Dida has to avoid seafood or mabuyu seeds which she really enjoys. She loved swimming as a child but often dropped out of the school team because of flare-ups. Anxiety is another major trigger.
“Any time I’m under stress I get a horrible flare-up and at work, people know because it shows outwardly and I have to take leave days,” says Dida, whose 9-5 job is architecture and interior design.
For Siro, her triggers include dust and fabrics such as wool and polyester.
“I occasionally have to shoot videos in the field or work in dusty places, then the following day I cannot go into work, because my face or my hands are in a bad shape,” she says, adding that at times she has difficulty walking because of flare-ups on her thighs.
The constant breaks from work have strained her work relationships.
“If eczema was just rashes without the scratching and discomfort, I could live with that. But try explaining that I can’t come to work because the friction is hurting my legs.”
In years past, treatment was mainly through expensive steroid medications which have potential side effects. Long-term steroid use impacted Dida’s immune system, making her vulnerable to arthritis-like joint pains.
With more scientific research there is a wider and safer range of treatment options today, including cosmetics for the dry, dull and flaky skin associated with eczema.
By comparison, Dida says, her eczema “is 90 percent better than what it was when I was a child.”
It took Siro many years of trial and error to figure out what works for her body. When it comes to diet, fruits and vegetables are a staple but there are times when she cannot have any type of protein.
“I eat very clean food and rarely eat out unless it’s a place I know properly because cooking oil affects me,” says Siro. “Dietary restrictions are usually the hardest thing for people with eczema.”
From her experience, managing eczema is about understanding one’s body and the things likely to trigger an outbreak.
“Once you figure out what doesn’t work for you, just let it go because it is better than relying constantly on medication,” she says.
During a particularly bad flare-up, Siro will revert to steroid medication so that she can “have a semblance of normalcy.”
Over the years, better and friendlier skincare brands like the LaRoche Lipikar and Aveeno have come into the market. What has not improved much is access to dermatologists, says Siro.
Access to dermatologists
Atopic dermatitis usually requires a specialist skin doctor and they charge a premium fee. Eczema is like a rich person’s disease, says Siro, because “if you don’t have the money you’ll settle for a casual hospital or clinic visit and hope the doctor there will help you sufficiently.”
Siro would like to see more dermatologists collaborating to offer free or reasonably-priced services, particularly to those unable to afford the treatment. “Right now, it is easier to get what is more harmful to your body because the better treatment is more expensive.”
Over 220 million people worldwide have eczema, according to the International Eczema Council. This October, which is Eczema Awareness Month, Dida plans to share more content about living with eczema.