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Embracing vitiligo: How Melquizael ‘Melk’ Costa became comfortable in his own skin

By Nolan King

“Be away from that kid. He’s full of wounds.”

Melquizael Costa turned around just in time to see an adult scolding his friend. His fellow five-year-old was ordered to move along and the play session was over. Ouch.

Costa remembers being confused. In retrospect, his confusion paralleled that of the bizarre behavior and misunderstanding projected toward him as a youngster.

Growing up, he was the same as every other kid. He wanted to play, laugh, adventure, and be loved. Unfortunately, the world didn’t always love him back, and that hurt.

Around age four, it happened – and that’s when things became different. As his skin changed color, so did the perception of those around him. The kids weren’t as mean to him as one may imagine, but the parents? They were a different story.

“People got confused that I had leprosy,” Costa recalled when he spoke to MMA Junkie. “They didn’t want to be in touch with me. They would be feeling nauseous about me. I suffered every single kind of discrimination because of that.”

Costa, now 25 years old, has vitiligo, a skin condition in which portions of the skin lose their pigmentation, resulting in abnormal patterns.

Nowadays, it’s more accepted and more understood. But 20 years ago in Brazil, no one had heard of it. That was problematic. There are no real physical symptoms, outside of issues with sunburns and dry skin.

Mental symptoms though, there are plenty that stems from the anxiety and embarrassment that comes with vitiligo. Costa was not immune. He moved away from a more highly-populated region and avoided human interactions.

“I went to the countryside and started working on a farm,” Costa said. “I didn’t want to go to the city. I didn’t want people to see me. Depression started to take roots in myself, as well. I started feeling for myself, what they were feeling, disgust. Martial arts was actually what saved me from this.”

Image via Melquizael Costa

The accepting place he belonged all along

The ignorance surrounding vitiligo during his childhood and through his teen years was widespread. Costa doesn’t fault people despite their cruelty. They just didn’t know better. In fact, Costa admits his parents thought he wouldn’t find work, because a person with his condition “couldn’t get a job.”

“Hey Dad, when I grow up I want to be a doctor,” Costa remembers asking his father.

His father replied, ‘Son, you can’t be a doctor because of your condition.’

“How about a police officer?” Costa followed up.

Once again, “You can’t be a police officer because of your condition.”

“What can I do with my life or what am I allowed to do with this?” Costa thought to himself.

One day, he received an answer from an unlikely source: a video game.

Costa trained MMA to help build skills that would combat bullying. It also gave him something to do and a community to be a part of. While he was familiar with the idea of being a professional fighter, he turned a corner when he stumbled across a combatant he hadn’t previously heard of.

Flipping through the fighters in a UFC video game for PlayStation 3, Costa couldn’t believe what he came across. It couldn’t be, but it was. Vitiligo. Scott Jorgensen changed Costa’s trajectory.

“I was playing it and then I saw this guy and he looked exactly like me,” Costa said. “I was like, ‘Is this for real? Is this made up? Who is this?’ I Googled him and I saw he was a UFC fighter. I was like, ‘Damn, this guy is just like me, so I can be a real UFC fighter. I finally found something I can be in my life.’ So, Scott Jorgensen, I tell everyone he was the one who pretty much opened this idea in my mind, who showed me it would be possible to get there someday.”

The training picked up and so did Costa’s self-confidence. For a long time, he was terrified to take his shirt off. He didn’t want to take pictures. He didn’t want to be seen. But in a welcoming environment where everyone was equal and had to partake in group activities, Costa had no choice. What was uncomfortable in the short term proved to be life-changing in the long.

“When I got to the gym, we would have to take photos after the practice,” Costa said. “We would have to take our shirts off and I never wanted to take my shirt off to show anything that was appearing. I wanted to hide my appearance. At the gym, I couldn’t do that. Also, it was natural to be there the way I was. That’s what ended up saving me and giving me confidence again to be who I am.”

Getting comfortable

Confidence didn’t come overnight. But as his MMA skills grew, so did his self-respect, his self-love, and his self-confidence. A major catalyst in his evolution was his brother, who encouraged him to pursue his dreams.

So when Costa’s brother died in a car accident, there was major soul-searching to be done. But like the cards he was dealt with his condition, Costa sat with the sadness until he transformed it into positive energy.

“I took the energy and the feelings that I had from that to motivate myself even harder and keep going,” Costa said. “When he died, he died believing I would be able to get somewhere. I said I would do it for me and for him. That took me to another level and motivated me in order to move on.”

Positive feelings were once hard for him to come by, but now he radiates happiness. Costa not only tolerates the way he looks. He loves it – and he loves himself. If he could change things, he wouldn’t. He gets to serve as an inspiration and knockdown stigmas one at a time.

“I love my skin,” Costa said. “I love how I look. I can’t imagine myself being any other way. Today, I love to take pictures. I love to show up. I love when I take pictures with 10 other people, I’m the highlight of the photo. I’m the only different there. Everyone will look at me. It makes me proud.

“There have been times I’ve been fighting and someone would come up to me and say, ‘Hey, I came here just to see you because I have vitiligo, too. I didn’t want to leave home and you inspired me.’ It’s already happening and I feel great. … If when I was growing up, when I was a little kid, I don’t just mean fighters, but famous people that were in the spotlight that had the same condition as me, and people knew about them and I could find them easily, perhaps my childhood would’ve been different.”

For those who haven’t reached the finish line in the race for self-approval, Costa encourages them to block out the negativity. Even to this day, Costa hears the insults and the hate. He always reminds himself that the inside opinion is what matters, not outside judgments.

“My fight before the one I had in Mexico, my opponent called me ‘Galinha Pintadinha’. It’s a blue chicken with white dots that’s very famous with babies and small kids in Brazil,” Costa said. “He called me that character. I looked at his profile and I saw his profile was ‘Pitbull.’ So when we came to the faceoff, I went at him and I said, ‘You called me Galinha Pintadinha, right? Be certain that this Dalmatian will crush the pit bull.’ I used my condition to raise myself and put myself in the same situation as him. I don’t care if you call me Galinha Pintadinha or call me a Dalmatian. You can call me a Dalmatian all you want. I don’t care because this Dalmatian will always crush the pit bull.

“I think the first thing for anyone who has a condition or faces kind of prejudice, don’t feel the prejudice. I don’t let it affect me anymore. The first step is to be able to love yourself. You can only give people what you have.”

Those interested in learning more about vitiligo can check out “Shed Some Light” in the video below. Costa is one of a handful of individuals featured. It is directed by American presenter Lee Thomas, who also has vitiligo.

Costa competes Friday at LFA 132 against Italo Gomes, the main event of the card, which takes place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

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