When Kartiki Bhatnagar developed vitiligo at age 7, the white patches covering her body made her feel like an outcast, and the bullying at school didn’t help.
“I felt like I do not really belong here,” the 17-year-old student from New Delhi, India, tells PEOPLE. “I thought maybe in the future no one will like me. I felt people will be scared to hug me, touch me or even talk. I even thought that no guy will ever like me or accept me for who I am. This really affected my formative years.”
For eight years, Bhatnagar tried tons of different medications, from allopathic to homeopathic varieties, with no success.
“I felt vulnerable and scared, confused even,” she says. “Strangers would often suggest ‘nuskas’ and ‘upays’ (solutions and rituals) to ‘free me’ from the disease. I can laugh about it now, but not at that time.”
Bhatnagar’s school even pulled aside her classmates for a special meeting to reassure them that they couldn’t catch any diseases from being around her.
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It wasn’t until this year that she started look at the patches with a different eye.
“One day, my friend Shreyas looked at my foot and exclaimed, ‘Woah! I love the dual skin tone color you have.’ That seriously bewildered me,” she says. “Before I had the time to process this, he pointed at my left foot and commented, ‘In fact, that patch actually looks like the Apple logo.’ ”
“Initially I was in denial and thought he was making fun of me. But then, I was actually hit with the realization that it did look like one.”
He pushed Bhatnagar to start outlining the shapes with a pen, and that inspired her to start painting them into various scenes, from the skyline to ghosts.
“As a person I am really experimental in nature and I like to think out of the box,” she says. “Some may call this crazy, but usually I am thinking of new things I can do with them. I have been given it, might as well embrace it! I was even thinking of making them everlasting by getting them tattooed.”
“I was once called the ‘Vitiligo Queen’ and that made me so happy!” she says. “I am so glad my main aim of making people aware of vitiligo is coming to the forefront and I can dispel its myths.”