Despite growing up in Puerto Rico, I always hated summer fashion, in particular sleeveless silhouettes. It has nothing to do with the styles themselves, but rather the fact that they put my arms on full display, revealing the red bumps and dry skin resulting from keratosis pilaris — a non-contagious condition that develops when too much keratin is created, blocking hair follicles from growing.
As a kid, even the cheerleading uniform I adored made me self-conscious; I begged our coach to add turtlenecks underneath the vest, despite the 80-degree weather year-round (needless to say, it didn't fly). In addition to having to wear my school uniform, which was made of short-sleeve shirts, this was also the height of Y2K fashion: tube tops, bustiers, and going-out shirts that exposed my arms and prompted my elementary school classmates and friends to ask questions about my “chicken skin.”
Naturally, I wasn’t alone in this: 50% to 80% of teenagers are affected by keratosis pilaris, while 40% of adults develop it over time, according to the National Institutes of Health. Most of the women in my family have long had keratosis pilaris, too. It was so normal among my relatives that they assumed it was just “dry skin.” Yet, while I saw them happily enjoying their sleeveless styling choices regardless of the condition, I couldn’t see myself ever being that free with my arms.
Over the years, I developed a few tactics, many of which involved wearing too many layers even in the heat. During high school and college, I developed an affinity for leather jackets, button-down shirts, and pashminas, which I wore no matter the weather. (On the beach, I preferred long-sleeved rashguards to bikinis). Yes, I was hot, but it meant no one would ask about my skin condition. Fashion was my armor, and fall and winter styles year-round served as my safe haven.
When I moved to New York, I was thrilled to finally be able to wear the styles that covered my arms without the severe heat and side-eye (you can imagine how odd I looked wearing a leather jacket in the Caribbean). Yet, when summer came around, it was the same drill all over again: red bumps and itchy skin made worse by the heat and me covering my arms up, even if I was melting underneath the button-down shirts. Still, my method worked — no one asked me about my KP.
A few summers into my New York life, I got a rude awakening into just how much I was hiding behind my clothes when a romantic partner inquired if the bumps on my arms were contagious. It completely shattered the little confidence I was able to build via my long-sleeved armor. But it also made me realize that I wasn’t solving anything — in fact, by covering my arms in the summer, I made my keratosis pilaris worse. I realized that if I kept hiding behind layers — no matter how much I enjoyed wearing them — I’d never be in control of my own skin, nor enjoy my life shame-free.
Since then, I’ve slowly peeled off layers: One summer, I transitioned to short-sleeved shirts; the next I got into tank tops. I’ve also researched skin-care treatments to manage the itchiness and redness — including dermatologist-recommended salicylic acid creams and exfoliants like First Aid Beauty’s KP Bump Eraser scrub and Paula’s Choice 2% BHA lotion — and care for my skin rather than anger it. And even on days when my KP has a plan of its own, I’ve learned to display it proudly much like the women in my family.
While I can’t say I’m over my self-consciousness, I am more open to revealing my arms. Earlier this year, I was a bridesmaid at my cousin’s wedding, choosing a backless, halter dress that exposed my arms in photos that will be seen by a lot of people. This summer, I’ve worn everything from butterfly tops and denim sleeveless dresses to white tanks, making for a freer, cooler, and much more sartorially fulfilling summer than ever before.
My KP and I are not best friends yet. But we’re getting closer, one sleeveless top at a time.