Millions of Facebook users list their relationship status as “it’s complicated,” but for people with eczema, that phrase takes on a special meaning. Here, in a group interview via Zoom, three social media influencers speak candidly about what it’s like to hook up and couple up while coping with a chronic skin condition. All three – Shiv Sewlal, 21, Emilie Chho, 27, and Ceci French, 34 – have had eczema their entire lives. Chho and French recently went through topical steroid withdrawal (TSW), a debilitating side effect of managing eczema with steroids for prolonged periods. Yet they talk about their experiences with humor and hope.
Is there one word that describes dating with eczema?
Sewlal: My parents were really strict, so I didn’t start dating until after I finished high school, just before COVID hit. But I had bad self-esteem from having eczema as a child. I was bullied for it and was also called contagious. A lot of people didn’t like to go near me. Now my skin has finally calmed down to the point that I feel my most confident. So I'm ready. I’m excited. I’m actually feeling hopeful.
French: The first word that popped in my head was “frustrating.” In the back of your head, you're always thinking about how you’re going to explain it to people. That’s the biggest thing for me.
Chho: I don’t know if it’s a good word, but “vulnerable.” I’ve been with my boyfriend for 5 years. When I was going through TSW, our relationship was not the same. It was very hard for him to just be on the couch not doing much with me. I was in bed in pain all day. I was miserable. But he was there for me. He was like, “It’s OK, Emilie. You're still so beautiful. I love you the way you are.” [Her voice cracks.] It was really hard.
What did you worry about in the early stages of dating?
Chho: I literally wore makeup every day. Like I had to cover up everything. I’m like, “What if he thinks I’m ugly?” I would have dry areas on my chin, so I would put makeup over it, and the foundation wouldn’t set right. It would be crackly. It looked kind of weird, and I’m like, “I have no choice. I have to do this because if he sees my real skin, it’s going to be worse.”
French: I was extremely insecure, especially with dating apps. Even so, I made a point to bring it up as a topic of conversation sooner rather than later. I felt it was important to just put it out there, so it wasn’t a surprise to anyone. But yeah, I would wear makeup all the time, like Emilie, because the rash on my lip has always been a huge issue for me. One time I was going on maybe a fourth date with this guy, and I was putting on my foundation, but my upper lip was split right down the middle. There was no way I could cover it, but I kept trying. I was like 20 minutes late for my date. The day after, looking in the mirror, I was disappointed in myself. “Why am I doing these things?” It really helped put things in perspective: “No, maybe that’s not as important as I think it is.”
Sewlal: The first date I ever went on, I wore no makeup. I wore clothes showing my arms, all my scars and everything. I have really bad eczema on my eyelids that looks like eyeshadow. He was like, “Oh, are you wearing makeup?” And I was confident. I said, “No.” And he was like, “Oh, well, I thought you just did your makeup really badly.” Why did he have to say the word “badly”? And I was like, “You know what? I feel confident with my natural smoky eyes.”
When I was younger, they used to be like, “Oh, did you get into a fight? Did you get a black eye? And I’m like, “Yes, I can give you a black eye.” [Laughs.]
There’s often pressure to drink when dating, but it can cause flare-ups. What’s your relationship with alcohol?
Sewlal: I have over 40 allergies. So my rule of thumb is, I try to avoid things that are life-threatening or cause vomiting or severe flare-ups. Everything else I try to still have. When I do have alcohol, it’s a trigger, so I don’t have it much. But I don’t like to limit myself. Especially when meeting new people, I like to have just one glass to help with the confidence and the nerves.
French: When I was dating and younger, I was a party animal. I did not care at that point. I was like, “You know what? Screw it.” If I flare, I flare. The huge thing that I struggled with is that you want to feel normal. You want to feel a part of something.So I would ignore the fact that I would flare afterward. Then I’d hide for a couple of days until my flare went away and have to explain it to people. “Oh yeah, I was super hungover for 2 days.” But really, I just didn’t want to be in public.
What’s your most embarrassing date story?
Sewlal: This really nice guy and I went to a festival together. My skin was dry, so you could see the dry flakes already. After a few hours at the festival, one of the flakes was hanging out and I didn’t realize it. I was talking to him and midway, he peeled it off me! You’re not supposed to peel your flakes. And I was just like, “OK, it’s OK. I’m calm. I brought my cream with me. Just put it on.”
French: It was a one-night stand moment where I had full-face makeup. I wasn't planning on staying the night, but it ended up there. I didn’t have all my usual tools to help me clean my face. The next morning, I woke up and ran to the bathroom. I was like, “Oh God!” There was a lot of reaction happening because sex makes me react, with all the intensity and blood pressure. I had the rash eyes. My lip was flaring. It was oozing, too. I was like, “Oh no, I gotta go.” So I grabbed all my crap and ran out the door. He was still sleeping and had no idea, and I never texted him again. I was so embarrassed.
Chho: One time, when I was dating my ex-boyfriend, I slept over at his dorm. I woke up, and there were flakes all over the bed. He was still sleeping, thank God. I literally swept all the flakes off the bed, and I acted like nothing happened. I’m like, “Oh my goodness. I hope he doesn’t find this on the floor. I have to vacuum.”
What’s your experience with sex and eczema?
French: The first time my fiancé and I had sex was in my car. We had to work around and maneuver with kissing because saliva can really dry me out and make me flare. He was very understanding about that. I think the biggest thing is communication. Not too long ago, he was like, “Yeah. I noticed that you were having a really bad flare on your upper lip, but I didn't care. I still thought you were beautiful, and I loved you more for showing up.”
I am very proud of our sex life during TSW, even though our one position was doggy style because our skin could not touch. It’s bad when your skin is that raw and sensitive. I didn’t even want clothes touching me, so I certainly didn’t want another body and heat and sweat all over me. He was understanding. It was amazing that he could be with me and not put his needs before mine.
Chho: During TSW, it was really hard for us to have sex because I was so uncomfortable all the time. Like Ceci was saying, you don’t even want your bodies to touch. So it’s like, “Yeah, I’m not really in the mood for sex.”
We would do doggy style or whatever, and he would always be gentle, especially because he has a beard. The face is very sensitive, so I didn’t want it to scratch me. Or my shoulders would be cracked, and he’d grabbed my shoulder. Now it’s much better because I am healing. Now I’m like, “Oh yes, let’s do it.”
Sewlal: I just want to say Ceci and Emilie have given me so much hope to hear that you have such nice partners who understand.I have really severe Eczema on sensitive areas. Other people don’t understand. They’re like, “How can you have eczema on your private areas?” And I’m like, “Oh, it’s there. It’s everywhere.”
I have eczema all over my mouth and upper lip, and doctors have explained to me that if I’m kissing someone who ate peanuts, it can be dangerous. There are people who have passed away from that. With eczema, we have a lot of open wounds, so the allergens get in more easily. So when you’re clubbing, you’ve got to stop like, “What did you eat? Nuts? Eggs? Milk? Tell me from breakfast to now.” [Laughs.]
What’s the best thing about dating with eczema?
French: I think the best part about having any type of chronic disease is opening up discussion. And also helping other people to learn how to empathize and be more compassionate.
Chho: Having a chronic condition like this makes you more empathetic as well. If someone is going through something, you tell them, “I get it. And I’ll be there to support you.”
If you could go back and give your younger self dating advice, what would it be?
French: Be more fearless and stop worrying about what anyone else thinks. You’re going to grow up to be a badass. I wish I had been more understanding of my worth and my value. I think it would’ve saved myself from staying in relationships that I shouldn't have been in.
Sewlal: You know yourself better than anyone, so don’t listen to the doctors who belittle your problems. Don’t listen to family members who think they know better. You are doing everything you can; everything is going to be OK in the future. You’re going to be on this journey throughout time, so you’ve got to learn to love yourself. You’ve got to learn to listen to yourself and to trust yourself.
Chho: Don’t change who you are or act like you’re someone else. Someone will love you for you and not what your skin looks like.
Before I started dating, my mom said to me, “Emilie, I don’t know if you're going to find someone.” I’m like, “Wow, it really hurts to hear that.” So I would tell my younger self, don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you’re not going to find someone because of your skin condition. Someone will love you for you.
Note: This interview has been edited for flow and readability.