By Mark S. King
Some years ago, I told someone that I was HIV positive before I agreed to his invitation for a date. “Yeah, I know,” he casually replied, and then he looked a little embarrassed, as if he shouldn’t have said it. It was too late, of course; I knew exactly what he meant. He could tell my HIV status by my face.
I had The Look. The sunken, wasted cheeks of someone living with HIV. It became a common manifestation in the 1980’s and persisted until the medications that caused the condition, known as facial lipoatrophy, were changed or abandoned for better treatment.
I’m one of those long-term survivors. I am proud of my history advocating and living with HIV. But as uncomfortable as it may be to admit, it’s a lot easier to live openly as a person with HIV when you don’t look like it.
When the symptoms began to appear, it meant that the choice to share my status, as an activist or on a personal level, had been taken away. My HIV was written across my face for all to see.
I felt ashamed, and then conflicted. For someone who has been fighting so hard to reduce HIV stigma, what is there to be ashamed of, exactly? Many of the physical signs of HIV treatment — from weight loss to fat redistribution to facial wasting — are worn as battle scars, if not badges of honor, by thousands of people living with HIV. My disease is mirrored in my physicality. What’s wrong with that?
Eventually, I realized that correcting my facial wasting was no different than improving my t-cell counts. I wasn’t making a political statement — I was improving my health and well-being.
And so, I began a journey that would include multiple visits to a specialist and more than $20,000 worth of various “facial filler” products injected into my face…