Written by Danielle Dorsey, Managing Editor – Jessica Golich
“People either think it’s ugly and that something’s wrong with me, or they think it’s very beautiful,” says Lara Estrada. Diagnosed with the long-term skin condition vitiligo at four-years-old, a portion of her heart-shaped face is depigmented, stretching from the inside of her left eyebrow across her cheek and freckled across her lips.
Her beauty is striking.
“I have very little memory of being diagnosed, but I do remember people asking me ‘What’s happening to you?’ I honestly just remember being very confused because when you’re that age you don’t really look at yourself. As far as I remember it’s just always been a part of me.”
Lara is makeup-free and one set of eyelashes is stark white. She is poised, self-assured, and has the kind of smile that illuminates a room. As we begin talking, gushing over our respective yoga practices and shared love of travel, she tells me how society’s beauty standards are ingrained in us from an early age, especially for young women. Beauty standards are ingrained in us from an early age, and for women especially beauty is equated to self-worth, but Lara never saw vitiligo as something that diminished her value.
“There were times when it was hard, but one of the things that made it easier for me was that my parents just acted like it wasn’t an issue. It didn’t change their expectations for me. They expected me to do well in school, they said maybe when I got older I could wear makeup to cover it up, but I never really liked that idea even when I was younger. I was really lucky that school was easy for me. I was a good student. I was an athlete. I grew up playing softball and dancing and I excelled in those things so people respected me. I always had teachers, mentors, or coaches pushing me and validating my skills. I honestly think that had a huge impact on me feeling comfortable in my own skin.”
Globally, only 1% of the population is diagnosed with vitiligo. One of the most well-known figures with the condition was Michael Jackson, who according to his biographer was diagnosed in his late 20’s. He wasn’t open about his diagnosis and some speculated that it was a result of skin bleaching and other cosmetic alterations. Whatever the case may be, it was clear that growing up in the public eye caused him to struggle with his appearance. Instead of educating themselves on the condition, the public largely responded with ridicule and the King of Pop became easy fodder for comedians. For Lara, lack of visibility and ignorance remain the most frustrating parts of living with vitiligo.
“I think kids are always the hardest to deal with – actually, there are some really rude adults as well (laughs). In school I never really had trouble making friends. There would be people who would be like, ‘What’s wrong with her? What’s that?’ or ‘That’s ugly,’ ‘That’s scary,’ but there were always kids that would stand up for me. It took me a very long time, even until my 20’s or later to be able to stand up for myself, but thankfully there were always other people backing me up. It’s amazing actually when I think about it.”
Often it’s the individuals who do not conform who are maligned the most in society. Prior to our interview I had my own assumptions about what life must have been like for Lara, but I learned that for every intrusive stare or rude comment hurled in her direction, there was someone committed to showing her the other side of the coin, the side where judgment and superficialities are set aside in favor of true compassion and connection.
Now the owner of a yoga studio called Yoga Bliss in Westchester near LAX Airport, Lara is passionate about serving others. She completed her undergraduate degree at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, but never considered herself to be corporate-minded. While her classmates interned at high-stakes investment firms, Lara was advocating for women in prison to receive medical care.
“I just have the compassion and capacity in my heart to do that kind of work and I think part of it is because I do know what it feels like to be outcast or treated differently. I always felt called to social causes where I could help people who were really marginalized. I feel like I can put myself in their shoes.”
A business degree certainly doesn’t hurt though, and it’s likely the reason why, nearly a year after opening her studio, Lara has yet to lose any money on the venture. With her business’ birthday quickly approaching, she claims she isn’t too concerned with long-term plans.
“As long as I’m following something that is interesting and fulfilling to me I trust that will lead to good opportunities. My studio has been open for almost a year and people are asking me if I’m going to open another location or turn it into a franchise and I’m just like let me get this down first and then we’ll see.”
For now, Lara is content to grow the community she’s started at Yoga Bliss and keep using her practice to change how others relate to themselves and the world around them.
“I think that yoga is such a transformative practice and for myself it’s help me be more present, have more patience with things. Yoga helps people build awareness of themselves and start to pay attention to other things in different ways. I think that’s something that’s so valuable and I want to help people to access that.”
As Lara and I exchange goodbyes, I take a moment to be present and consider my own complicated relationship with skin. I think about how we insist on defining ourselves by these doughy encasements, and how impressive it is that somehow, Lara Estrada has managed to transcend it all.
Danielle Dorsey, better known as Danielle Dorky around Los Angeles, developed an interest in all things nerdy and off-the-grid. She frequents live shows and produces a monthly yoga workshop called Free the Nipple Yoga. She loves attending different workshops and learning new skills, such as zine-making, calligraphy, and craft cocktail tending. A Southern California native, Danielle is coming up on a decade in Los Angeles, and loves finding and sharing new gems in her sprawling city. You read more of Danielle’s work on her blog DanielleDorky.com