Vitiligo is a skin disease that causes loss of skin color. According to the Mayo Clinic, individuals with vitiligo have patches of discoloration on any part of their body. The medical condition results from malfunctioning or dead cells that produce melanin. Celebrities like the late Michael Jackson and Winnie Harlow are known for their skin condition. The latest star bringing vitiligo to the center of attention is Naturi Naughton. The “Power” actress brings awareness to the disease in the short film “Behind the Smile,” Naughton’s first directed film for the BET Her network.

“This film brings things to the forefront so we can talk about them. This was a film on mental health, but it also shows women in all of our struggles in multi-dimensional ways,” Naturi Naughton says.

“Behind the Smile” is part of BET’s mental health initiative, “The Couch.” The film is about a recently promoted anchorwoman named Morgan who has vitiligo. She falls into a severe depression when forced to choose between her dream job and her vitiligo support group. Naughton picked this subject to highlight the damaging effects this skin disease causes beyond cosmetics. She also understands what it is like to keep it together for the sake of others.

“I know what it feels like to hide behind the smile, and I know what it feels like to struggle to be your true self. During different points in my career, there have been moments when I pretend and say, oh, yeah, everything’s great. But really, you could be struggling and having the worst day ever,” Naughton says.

Naughton’s connection to vitiligo is her mother’s friend Marie. Naughton interviewed Marie before shooting to learn about her experiences living with vitiligo. She discovered that Marie, a pre-K school teacher, has had vitiligo for over 30 years. 

Children would say insensitive things like calling her a cow and moo to her when she walked by. Adults who are not informed about vitiligo would also do insensitive things. Marie’s coworkers have asked if vitiligo is contagious; they asked if she could get a cream from the doctor to fix her up. They would be afraid to touch door handles and other objects she put her hands on.

The combination of everyone’s ignorant comments and actions took a toll on Marie. She would become depressed, not go out and withdraw from her relationships. Naughton had extreme empathy for Marie, and that emotion pushed Naughton to finish the film.

“I was just so blown away by how she was feeling. I was listening to her and thought there were so many myths and misconceptions about this. I empathize even more. It was courageous and brave that she opened up about her journey with vitiligo,” Naughton says.

There isn’t a cure for vitiligo, but there are treatments to slow down the process, the Mayo Clinic states. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, corticosteroids and light therapy are some methods that help with the disease. Vitiligo can occur at any age, and it usually appears before age 30.

Modern science hasn’t defined what exactly causes vitiligo. Cleveland Clinic lists a few factors that have triggered the disease in people, such as autoimmune disorders where a person’s immune system may develop antibodies that destroy melanin-forming cells. Genetic factors also play a role; about 30% of people with vitiligo have a close family member who also has the disease. Additionally, physical and emotional stress can activate vitiligo.

People with vitiligo may feel embarrassed or anxious about their skin, which can  develop low self-esteem and snowball into depression. The best defense against this part of the disease is not to isolate. Find your circle, seek the people who get it and don’t choose to deal with this issue alone. Support groups like Visibly Imperfectly Perfect and Vitiligo Support International aim to encourage, embrace and advocate for those living with this condition. 

Behind the Smile is Naughton’s attempt to make people aware of vitiligo and the damage it can cause. As more people become aware of vitiligo, sensitivity can increase toward those who have it and, in time, this could reduce the isolation among people living with the disease.

“I want the audience to feel like we are more the same than different. This film will mirror what happens to so many people in the world, and I hope they take this mirror and find the beauty within themselves,” said Naughton.

Behind the Smile is now streaming on BET Her.