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How Jess Tran’s Psoriasis Diagnosis Was the Wake-Up Call She’d Been Needing

Mental Well-Being

May 12, 2022

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Design by Yunuen Bonaparte; Photography courtesy of Jess Tran

Design by Yunuen Bonaparte; Photography courtesy of Jess Tran

by Jesse Sposato

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Medically Reviewed by:

Reema Patel, MPA, PA-C

•••••

•••••

by Jesse Sposato

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Reema Patel, MPA, PA-C

•••••

•••••

One woman’s journey from one set of body image challenges to another, and how she overcame them all.

Jess Tran had just been starting to feel good about her body when she developed chronic guttate psoriasis at age 24.

Tran, who’s now 29 and lives in Brooklyn, New York, by way of Australia, had been weightlifting since she was 17, and for a few years, she took it pretty seriously. She liked the way it felt to work hard at something and see results, and she appreciated how fit she looked.

Eventually, she started to become obsessive about it, though, even bordering on eating disorder territory, which she chalks up to “being a modern woman growing up [with] a lot of [mixed] signals from the media.”

Weightlifting became a way for her to exert control over her body, says Tran, a creative entrepreneur who runs purpose-driven marketing agency Scallion Pancake and co-runs vintage shop The Consistency Project. “It was a mix between the classic, ‘I need my body to look this way,’ and … ‘I’m not successful, or I’m not disciplined enough if I don’t do this four or five times a week consistently.’”

“It felt like I couldn’t ignore my body anymore. And it pushed me to really reevaluate, ‘What is the point of running my body into the ground?’”

— Jess Tran

Recognizing a need for change

Eventually, she lost her period from training too hard and not eating enough calories. Once that happened, she realized she needed to reassess the role weightlifting played in her life, and it was around then that she got a full-blown psoriasis flare-up for the first time.

“It was very annoying to work so hard at coming to terms with my body and evolving that relationship,” she says, “and then all of a sudden to be like, ‘Cool, now it’s my skin.’”

She saw it as a sign that she was clearly pushing herself too hard.

“It felt like I couldn’t ignore my body anymore. And it pushed me to really reevaluate, ‘What is the point of running my body into the ground?’”

It wasn’t just the lifting that had led to her psoriasis. She linked her outbreak to a stressful job and her natural personality, which she describes as intense and hard to temper.

Regardless of the impetus, she got tired of feeling like something was wrong with her body. “I wanted to feel healthy and normal, and the skin thing really pushed it because it was … such a visual ailment,” she says.

Tran, who likes to wear vintage fashion and revealing clothing, felt psoriasis impacted her confidence to dress the way she wanted to, which she felt was unacceptable.

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Coming to terms with her new skin condition

Psoriasis, which Tran describes as “small regions of clustered round red scaly patches,” brought about a whole new slew of body image issues. “It felt like no one else had skin like mine. It was really unusual looking,” she says. “So, I just felt really self-conscious about the way it made me look.”

She worried about what people might think of her skin, which she felt looked “contagious, for lack of a better word,” and she didn’t want to have to explain what it was (or wasn’t) every time she met someone new or a friend asked about it.

It didn’t help that doctors had difficulty pinpointing exactly what she had. They wondered whether it might be eczema or another condition. Tran saw several dermatologists before she finally received the diagnosis of guttate psoriasis. Though it was a relief to receive a proper diagnosis, the initial confusion around what it could be had made it feel all the “more mysterious and uncomfortable.”

We talk about face skin regularly, Tran notes, but we still have a long way to go when it comes to body skin. “In terms of where the modeling industry is and media representation and images, skin and chronic disease is still something that I don’t think is as accepted or represented,” she says. “I think we’ll get there in the next few years, but you don’t really see beauty ads of someone with full-blown eczema because that’s not … what marketable, perfect skin looks like.”

“Psoriasis changed my wellness practices because it forced me to slow down more and forced me to be more considerate about how fast [I was] going.”

— Jess Tran

Turning things around on her own terms

Traditional Western doctors told Tran that psoriasis was something she’d have for the rest of her life, and there wasn’t much she could do about it beyond applying topical creams. But she wasn’t giving up that easily. With the help of a holistic medical subscription service that works to understand the root causes of one’s chronic illness, and therapy, she’s taken matters into her own hands.

She did a lot of work in therapy to readjust her relationship with physical activity, so it was based less on results and more on how it could help improve her long-term physical and mental health. “The psoriasis was the inflection point and the crux of the transition from being this very meatheady powerlifter who was obsessive about everything,” she says, “to someone who was a bit kinder and gentler on myself because that’s what the psoriasis required.

“Psoriasis changed my wellness practices,” Tran adds, “because it forced me to slow down more and forced me to be more considerate about how fast [I was] going.”

In its gentler form, weightlifting is still a big part of Tran’s physical practice. She does it about four times a week, and it makes her feel empowered and strong in her body. “It’s definitely a combo of some healthy self-competition and discipline,” she says.

She has also dug deeper in therapy to understand why she’s always pushed herself so hard. She found that it’s a mix of childhood trauma, a response to scarcity growing up, and having immigrant and refugee parents, which elicited a cultural gap. “I think most people will agree that there is a clear correlation between your body and your feelings and your mental health,” she says, “and we’re only starting to really identify that.”

There are a lot of differences in Tran’s diet now, too. She has to avoid gluten, and while dairy isn’t so much an issue for her, she prefers to stay away from anything that might be inflammatory, which means she prioritizes vegetables and drinking lots of water. Overconsumption of alcohol is also to be avoided, and getting enough sleep is paramount.

She also meditates and journals daily, goes to therapy twice a week, and regularly attends a women’s group. Besides weightlifting, Tran exercises five times a week and moves her body in “ways that feel nourishing.” It’s important to her to spend time with friends, too.

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Where things stand now

Tran has gotten her psoriasis generally under control, but that doesn’t mean she never has flare-ups. She knows now that gluten and stress are triggers for her, and she has her wellness routines to help keep things in check. But if she strays from the path, her body often breaks down. “I get a very clear visual cue when I’m going too fast now,” she says. “It’s a warning sign.”

For the first time in months, she had a recurrence recently after an intense breakup with a long-term partner. “It’s disappointing to see again, but it’s also like, cool, got it, received the memo. I will try to chill out,” she says. This means canceling some plans, eating better, and treating her body with respect.

The importance of giving back

Tran likes to be open about her struggles as well as her triumphs. She’s been receiving DMs from people with similar struggles, and she talks about how meaningful it’s been to be a source of support for them.

“There are people online who’ve done that for me when I was figuring this out, and that was immensely helpful, so it’s just a form of paying it forward,” she says. “If I have a platform to be able to talk about it and to be helpful to one other person, or to make them feel more seen or encouraged in their journey … that’s what I [want to] be doing.”

Medically reviewed on May 12, 2022

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About the author

Jesse Sposato

Jesse Sposato (she/her) is a journalist, essayist, and editor living in the Catskills. She likes to write and edit stories about social issues, feminism, health and wellness, culture, friendship, and grief. Jesse is currently the deputy editor of client projects at Narratively; she’s also working on a grief memoir and a collection of essays about coming of age in the suburbs. Her writing has appeared in InStyle, Shondaland, and Refinery29, among many others. You can learn more on her website.

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